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Free Agent Spotlight: DE, Leonard Williams

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With so many questions about the Buccaneers defensive front, could Leonard Williams reunite with Todd Bowles?

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants
 Leonard Williams #99 of the New York Giants in action against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to retain the majority of their defensive-front free agents, yet with so many of them, and cap space to worry about, there’s always the possibility that they’ll lose a few. If they lose someone like Ndamukong Suh to the free agent market, they will be without a key player that helped lead them to the NFL’s number one rush defense. This is where former Todd Bowles first-round draft pick Leonard Williams comes in.

LEONARD WILLIAMS CAREER THUS FAR

Williams was selected 6th overall by the Jets in the 2015 NFL draft and was seen by many as the draft’s best defensive lineman. This year was also significant for the New York Jets seeing as they had hired Todd Bowles to be their head coach just three months prior.

The former USC Trojan notched 3 sacks and 68 combined tackles in his rookie campaign which resulted in him making the PFWA all-rookie team alongside Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston and Donovan Smith.

To say he improved from his first season would be an understatement. In 2016 Leonard Williams was nearly unstoppable as he accumulated another 68 tackles and a team high 7 sacks, leading him be named to the Pro Bowl as an alternate. He eventually made the Pro Bowl roster though as Khalil Mack decided not to participate.

Unfortunately for Williams, the success he saw in 2016 did not continue. The following season he cut back significantly on his production and ended with only 47 tackles and 2 sacks. In 2018, he showed some flashes of his Pro Bowl season and added 5 sacks, however his tackle numbers dipped to 42.

This dip in production would continue through into the 2019 season after his defensive-minded head coach was left without a job, which was quite lucky for Tampa Bay as we came to find out. The new regime, headed by Adam Gase, did not see the same production in Williams and decided to trade him to the team across town for a 2020 third round pick and a 2021 fifth round pick that may move up to the fourth round if Williams signs an extension with the Giants.

Despite playing in 8 games for the jets, he only had 20 tackles and didn’t record any sacks. The Giants didn’t see much more in 7 games as he only added 26 tackles and half a sack to his disappointing 2019 season.

WHY IT WORKS

As mentioned earlier, if the Bucs aren’t able to retain Ndamukong Suh, they will be in desperate need of a defensive lineman that can wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines. If Suh stays, I don’t see them being able to afford both of them, but it does remain a possibility if they have enough cash. Just think of that, Vita Vea, Ndaumukong Suh, and Leonard Williams all lining up next to one another, what a dream that would be.

On top of the Bucs just looking to fill a need, the former 6th overall pick has a lot of familiarity with Todd Bowles’ scheme after playing within it for 4 seasons. With the likes of Vita Vea obviously remaining in Tampa, this may free up Williams from double teams and lead him to showing similar success to his 2016 Pro Bowl season.

The 6’5” 302 pound defensive lineman shows flashes of his strengths and even did so with the giants through 7 games, despite the dip in production. He is so quick and so strong that he can line up anywhere along the line, even in some instances as a wide-9. Moving these lineman around is exactly what Bowles loves to do, and something that he’s done in the past with Williams.

One of my favorite things about Williams is his ability to read, slide down, and fill gaps that lead to minimal gains when rushers meet the 302 pound behemoth smack-dab in the running lane.

The play here shows just how good he is at this, and this is something that is seen quite often from him:

Lined up as a 5-technique, he tries to shuffle his feet and gets hit quickly by Dolphin’s Tackle Julien Davenport. However, he recovers quickly, works his way around and through Davenport’s outside shoulder to make a tackle for a 1-yard gain.

Now watch a similar-ish play, except this time he makes the tackle from the backside:

This time he is being blocked by a tight end, but it is a back-side block and isn’t expected to held forever. While Dalvin Tomlinson (#94) gets a good push in the backfield, that doesn’t take away from the complete disregard for Dallas Goedert’s (#88) block and hustle down the line to make the play in the backfield. Like the last play, he gets to the play-side shoulder, sheds, and makes a strong tackle.

These last two clips are just examples of many and display just how good Williams is as a run defender.

The following clip is from his 2016 season and highlights why he exploded onto the scene that year:

He runs a stunt with Muhammad Wilkerson (#96) and blows through the gap like a bat outta hell en route to an 11-yard sack. This is the kind of strength and motor he’s working with and would be welcomed in Tampa.

BUT...

As we’ve discussed, his pass rush has lost some of its luster and there was much left to be desired in 2019. It’s not just the production that’s dipped, its the overall feel of watching his tape. In previous years, at least 2016, he seemed more explosive and had a better feel of countering blocks. There were multiple instances this season of him trying to slap away lineman’s hands, just to have them counter it and leave him without anything else in his arsenal.

While this did not happen on every outing, it happened often enough that it can help explain his overall lack of sack production. He just didn’t look comfortable. While being a stout run defender is definitely a positive, his inability to rush the passer as of late will be a severe detriment to his success. PFF sums it up perfectly with the following:

“[Williams] needs to prove that he can be a significant factor rushing the passer [once] again or his value has a very defined cap to it.”

Fortunately, as the season progressed, so did his comfort in the system and an overall better showing down the stretch. While he didn’t have the stand-out statistics as other seasons, he did show a lot of promise, especially in the Giant’s final game against the Eagles.

WHAT’S THE COST?

According to Sportrac.com, Williams’ market value is around $8.2 Million/yr which is a slight discount to Suh, who received a $9.25 Million 1-year contract with Tampa in 2019. However, this contract is projected to be an average salary over a 5 year span, likely meaning he would command more for a 1-year deal.

Would he sign a one year deal? Possibly. If New York decides not to sign him, he would be on the open market. A former number 6 overall pick with declining production could probably use a 1-year prove it type deal to show the league why he was chosen so high.

Do the Buccaneers want more 1-year deals as they did in 2019? Probably not too many. The reason they chose to do that in the first place with so many players was to see what they were working with and who they should carry with them into 2020. Consistency is key for growing together as a team, and that’s what they want to look for going forward.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

Is Bowles even interested in his former pick? This would be the first question to ask when speculating whether or not there’s interest there. I would think that the former Jets head coach would be interested however, simply based on the fact that Williams did so well in his system early on.

Additionally, we don’t know how interested the Giants are in re-signing him. When they traded for Williams, Giants General Manager Dave Gettleman had nothing but positive things to say, but does the sentiment remain?

Finally, we have no clue if Williams is interested in reuniting with his former head coach. While it would most likely benefit his career by playing in this system again, he may prefer to stay in New York and work to improve on last season. At this point in time, we’ll just have to wait and see what develops.

MAKE THE DECISION

Who would you rather have playing in Tampa, Suh or Williams? Would you want someone completely different like Vernon Butler from Carolina, who our very own James Yarcho dives into here? Or would you want Tampa to draft a Kinlaw or Epenesa to fill in that role?

You be the judge.

Poll

When it comes to Germain Ifedi, what would you have the Buccaneers do?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Sign him, no matter what.
    (16 votes)
  • 38%
    Make an offer, but keep it reasonable.
    (124 votes)
  • 19%
    Invite him for a cup of coffee and see where it goes from there.
    (62 votes)
  • 21%
    Call him up if there’s a need after the draft.
    (71 votes)
  • 15%
    Don’t need him.
    (50 votes)
323 votes total Vote Now