As it has been mentioned a lot lately, teams that have not reached the NFL Playoffs are filling the last remaining openings on their coaching staffs and front offices. Therefore, the preparations for the 2021 NFL Free Agency and a possibly wild offseason are in full force. For teams that have struggled to put pressure on the opposing quarterbacks this past campaign, the pass-rush class could be amongst their most notable priorities. These teams might be heavily interested in Giants defensive end Leonard Williams, one of the best pass-rushers on the market.
How We Got Here
Leonard Williams was drafted sixth overall by the New York Jets in 2015 with high expectations following 20 sacks in three years with USC. However, he never lived up to his reputation, playing four unfruitful seasons with the Jets.
During his first four years at 1 Jets Drive, Leonard Williams posted just 17 sacks. Moreover, he never registered more than seven in a single campaign, doing so in 2016, his only Pro-Bowl selection.
Just before the NFL’s trade deadline passed in 2019, Williams found a new home, although he remained at the same venue. The Giants acquired the former first-rounder alongside a sixth-round pick, giving up the third-round pick that the Jets used on Ashtyn Davis in the 2020 NFL Draft. Furthermore, the Jets also received a 2021 fifth-round pick.
Leonard Williams wasn’t a force to be reckoned with in the remainder of the 2019 campaign, only posting half a sack in seven starts. However, he certainly looked like a brand new player when he returned to the field in 2020, without fans at MetLife Stadium to witness the best season of his career to date.
He managed to put together 11.5 sacks, by far his best in six seasons as a professional. Not only that, but Leonard Williams also finished the year seventh in sacks in the league, including fifth amongst NFC pass-rushers. His impressive production in the last year of his contract helped boost the Giants pass-rush to 12th in the NFL with 40 sacks total, four more than last year.
Williams’s performance was game-changing for the New York Giants in 2020. In addition, he promises to do so and beyond for any team that inquires about his next deal in NFL Free Agency. Coming off a year when the league’s sack stats were near all-time lows, teams could try to get an advantage over their opponents via pass-rush production. On the other hand, as it is more often the case, it will be more urgent for teams struggling in that department to acquire Leonard Williams to bring balance to their defensive units.
Leonard Williams NFL Free Agency Fit #1: Jacksonville Jaguars
With a record of 1-15-1 during the 2020 NFL season, the Jacksonville Jaguars were the worst team in the NFL. Unsurprisingly, the lack of production by their pass-rushing unit came at a similar rate.
Jacksonville posted 18 sacks during their painful regular-season performance. This was the second-worst in the whole league, with only the Bengals having fewer QB sacks.
Moreover, the Jaguars had those problems despite going for a boost in their defensive line early in the draft. The club had drafted LSU outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson with the 20th pick of the first round last year. Despite the trade that sent Yannick Ngakoue to Minnesota, they still had reinforcements in Dawuane Smoot, who was coming off career-high six sacks the previous year, as well as 2019 first-rounder Josh Allen.
Unfortunately, injury woes held Allen to just seven games and two and a half sacks. Smoot ended up near his 2019 figures with 5.5 sacks while he and Allen were two of just three players with multiple sacks all year for Jacksonville. Those numbers speak loudly and avidly about how much the Jaguars need at least one new addition at the position.
The argument could be made that they don’t need to dramatically climb the ranks. Sacks are becoming less significant than they already were. With an average sack percentage of 5.9%, the numbers are almost on par with the 5.8% all-time low from 2016. Nonetheless, the Jags are almost desperate to move out of the bottom part of the league in that department.
Furthermore, it would also provide help for their sinking defense. Against running stables, the Jaguars allowed the fifth-most yards per rushing attempt. Yet, they were even worse against the pass, conceding the third-highest passer rating – 105.6. For the latter, though, addressing the cornerback and safety positions is an even bigger priority.
The secondary might indeed be a more urgent need for the team’s front office. The same goes for the offensive line with Cam Robinson entering NFL Free Agency.
While not the number-one order-of-business, Jacksonville’s pass-rush has been amongst the worst in the league. The team would be able to afford Leonard Williams and boost that unit after addressing its other needs with a league-high $73 million in cap space.
Leonard Williams NFL Free Agency Fit #2: New England Patriots
After years of holding the franchise together, New England‘s defense took a massive step back in 2020. A lot of that had to do with opt-outs of key players prior to the campaign, with the absence of Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung being avid in the running defense and the secondary, respectively.
Still, the Patriots’ defensive unit was a mixed bag at best this past year. On the one hand, the passing defense was as good as always, allowing the ninth-lowest passer rating in the league. On the other hand, their defense against the ground game conceded 4.5 yards per carry. That was the 13th-most in the league and a 7.1% increase as compared to last year’s solid group.
Entering the 2021 NFL season, that defensive front line could face a potential overhaul or at least a few changes. Defensive tackles Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy, the former a possible starter and the latter a multi-year one, are up in the air with expiring contracts. The club faces the challenge to not only bring them back, or replace them, but to add upgrades so that once Hightower is back, the unit is better than the last season he was available.
However, speaking of that defensive line and the unit upfront, there is another quite severe issue. Just like the running defense, the pass-rush was highly underwhelming. But, unlike the ground game-stopping group, that unit had no major contributors missing. Still, it ended up with 24 total sacks for the year, the seventh-worst in the NFL.
As the Patriots use a 3-4 formation, both Chase Winovich and John Simon came off the edges to put pressure on the quarterback. While Winovich was great in his second season as a pro, posting 5.5 sacks, Simon wasn’t in the same boat. The 30-year-old had just two sacks despite starting all 16 games during the regular season. Now in his ninth year in the NFL, Simon has a career-high of just five sacks and hasn’t registered more than four in his three seasons in Massachusetts.
Being near the bottom of the league and with Simon entering free agency, the Patriots could look for some help for their pass-rush. With $57 million in cap space ahead of NFL free agency, New England has enough resources to address their other problematic components and then go after a Leonard Williams in his prime.
Leonard Williams NFL Free Agency Fit #3: Cincinnati Bengals
As in other departments, the Bengals were the worst team in the league when it comes to putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The team’s pass-rush recorded just 17 sacks over the course of the 2020 regular season.
Despite the woeful display of their offensive line, as well as the many departing pass-catchers, Cincy’s defense also deserves its fair share of attention in NFL Free Agency. Their secondary was the 11th-worst while the running defense allowed an average of 5.1 yards per attempt, second-most in the NFL.
The Bengals could be able to find a new offensive tackle with the fifth overall pick if Oregon’s Penei Sewell is still on the board. Should that be the case, their NFL Free Agency plan would fully focus on defensive upgrades.
Owner Mike Brown would have to not only deal with the departures of Mackensie Alexander and William Jackson, who were the bright spots during a bad season for the secondary. In addition, he needs to improve the unit after a disappointing campaign as well as to fix the Bengals’ performance against the run. Defensive tackles Christian Covington and Mike Daniels are also entering the free-agent market.
Therefore, the interior of the D-Line as well as the linebacker position could be amongst the top priorities for the team during the offseason.
Nonetheless, with Cincinnati having $34 million in salary-cap space, they would be able to afford a new edge-rusher of the caliber of Leonard Williams. Since they are the least productive team in that category, this is a huge hole. Furthermore, filling it would provide balance to the defense once the other units within it are addressed too.