As the month of March rapidly approaches, so does the 2021 NFL offseason. The market, whether it is free-agent signings or blockbuster trades, is already heating up with intriguing rumors and possibilities. For teams looking to fix struggling secondaries, the safety market in this year’s NFL Free Agency has limited talent. However, it has enough high-profile names for any team to add a noticeable upgrade. One of the most-watched players on that market is former Saints draftee Marcus Williams.
How We Got Here
After being drafted in the 2017 NFL Draft, Marcus Williams has been a constant starter for the often-solid New Orleans Saints defense. Besides playing in all 16 games in 2018, he never started fewer than 14 in the other three campaigns.
However, that doesn’t mean he didn’t have obstacles on his path, or at least initially. In his second year, Williams put on a woeful performance, allowing a passer rating of 106.6 in 31 targets. Moreover, things didn’t improve dramatically the following year. This time, Marcus Williams‘ conceded rating was identical, 105.4, on more targets, 39.
A former second-round pick, the Saints organization often wondered when they would get the best of the Utah prospect. For the first time, the passer rating figure amounted to less than 100.0, 92.8 to be precise. However, he had his lightest workload since the metric was incorporated into Pro-Football-Reference’s stats – just 26 targets.
Yet, it turned out to be a huge turnaround season for the 24-year-old, who is heading into his first NFL free agency with a much higher market value. Spotrac estimates Williams to get $13.5 million per year. The lower demand this offseason, a result of a drop in the salary cap and financial incapabilities of the 32 teams, could affect this number, though.
However, this seems like a big steal on the player side for a safety with his unimpressive numbers. The lack of talent on the market in this department will be a positive for his chances to stay at that price. Therefore, the low supply will make for many candidates for Marcus Williams’s signature.
Marcus Williams NFL Free Agency Destination #1: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the teams that probably won’t be hesitant to spend this upcoming NFL free agency. The team is $83 million under the $180-million projected salary-cap threshold, the most space in the league, according to OverTheCap.
But, simultaneously, this happens to be one of the clubs with the worst defenses against the pass, as well as one of the teams that need a new safety the most.
During the 2020 season, Jacksonville finished with the third-worst secondary in the NFL, with an allowed rating of 105.6. Meanwhile, the Jags conceded the sixth-most yards through the air and the second-highest opposing completion percentage. The team could badly use some upgrades, whether that is a replacement to the departing D.J. Hayden and Josh Jones or some support surrounding them.
The latter of those names was one of the Jaguars’ starters as regards the safety duo. Josh Jones started 13 games in the second and final year of a contract which he began as a Dallas Cowboys player. In that final year, he certainly made the Cowboys happy for placing him on waivers last December. Jones was in coverage for 38 targets and surrendered a 138.9 passer rating. This was the second-worst within the unit after cornerback Chris Claybrooks‘s 144.0.
The severe issues he experienced last season make it unlikely for the Jaguars to bring him back, even with the low cost that comes with him. The passing defense is set to be amongst general manager Trent Baalke’s top priorities in the NFL free agency, alongside possibly the O-Line and the pass-rush. Considering all the other needs around Jacksonville’s roster, $13 million might be unattractive for a safety who isn’t even the best on the market.
However, if the club misses out on the better options, among which Marcus Maye, Anthony Harris, and Justin Simmons, it will have enough resources to get the first piece of a hopefully upgraded secondary unit. As the Jaguars need to ensure stability at the safety position, they might have to even stick with Marcus Williams. Nonetheless, waiting until the market has judged Williams to know if he’ll be available at a lower price could be a part of Baalke’s plan if he considers him.
Marcus Williams NFL Free Agency Destination #2: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are significantly less flexible with their finances than the Jaguars. However, their problems and issues are very similar to the team that finished with the worst record during the 2020 NFL season.
Just like Jacksonville, Carolina was amongst the worst pass-stopping defenses in the NFL. The Panthers’ secondary broke down terribly, allowing a passer rating of 98.4 throughout their regular-season matchups. This was the eight-highest in the NFL and was accompanied by an even worse completion percentage in coverage and the 13th-most yards conceded to air raids.
All of this happened just after the Charlotte-based franchise lost James Bradberry and Ross Cockrell, who remained within the NFC but with New York and Tampa Bay, respectively, after leaving in the 2020 NFL Free Agency. Now, the task is no easier. However, this time, it is centered around the safety spot.
This is because Tre Boston, who hasn’t missed a game for the Panthers over the last two years, is scheduled to depart this March. Despite the unit’s overall woes, Boston could leave a good reputation in NC and enter the market on a high note. He’s never allowed a rating over 95.0 having faced a total of 135 targets in coverage with the Panthers and the Cardinals since 2018.
This included a career-high of 74.9 during the 2019 season over 36 targets. Meanwhile, the display in his latest campaign was on the downturn but largely bearable – 95.0 over career-most 55 targets. All of this should be an alarm to Carolina that they can maintain a very solid starting safety at a lower price than the upper echelon of the market offers. Between the $6 million he received last season and his resume, he resembles efficient spending much better than Marcus Williams would.
However, if Tre Boston doesn’t return, one of the players they would inquire for would naturally be the former safety of their NFC South rivals. Either by re-signing Boston or by getting a new gun in his place, the Panthers will need activity in that department. Juston Burris, who racked up a 101.9 allowed rating, spent last season alongside Boston at the safety.
Meanwhile, now with Boston likely on the market, next up on the depth chart is Myles Hartsfield, a rookie during last season who had just 13 targets while appearing as a backup to the starters. His service cannot be reliable, especially next to Burris and for one of the most underwhelming secondaries in the NFL.
Even if they re-sign Boston, Carolina could still go for somebody of Marcus Williams’s caliber in the 2021 NFL Free Agency. However, the team is projected to have $31 million in cap space. Therefore, cornerback, defensive end, and perhaps middle linebacker could all be areas of higher urgency than a second safety considering the team’s budget.
Nevertheless, despite his shortcomings, Marcus Williams could very well find the Panthers to be one of the teams interested in becoming his new home in NFL free agency.
Marcus Williams NFL Free Agency Destination #3: Dallas Cowboys
Just a few months after losing Byron Jones to Miami, the Cowboys were awful when it comes to defending against the opposing passing game. Furthermore, now this department of theirs is bound to lose even more of its everyday pieces.
Having conceded a passer rating of 100.4, Dallas had the seventh-worst passing defense in the National Football League. As regards secondary units, the problem often seems complex with players at various positions and handed various tasks. This is true but a further, advanced look always tells loudly who has really disappointed and who should remain after a good year. This situation is no different.
The Cowboys’ defense against the pass failed miserably over the course of America’s Team’s last campaign. Despite that, both of the group’s two starting corners performed at a very high level. Firstly, the gamble the club took on 2020 draftee Trevon Diggs, a second-rounder out of Alabama, completely paid off. The outside cornerback played 12 games, merely allowing an 85.8 rating over 84 targets. The same applied to his counterpart on the other side, Jourdan Lewis, who registered a rating of 94.6 on 79 targets. Both were hard to beat during the 2020 season.
However, the same cannot be said about the unit’s primary safety. Xavier Woods‘s performance was in sharp contrast with his colleagues at corner, or even his fellow safety, Donovan Wilson. Over the course of 29 targets in coverage, Woods conceded a 137.1 rating, the worst on the team out of anyone with more than 15 targets.
Woods now enters the 2021 NFL free agency and happens to be completely replaceable. This is because of his woes and despite the untalented free-agent class.
Still, the Cowboys have other needs, such as their fading defensive line, an opening at center, and the need for improvement at offensive tackle. That will be important as the Cowboys’ cap space, around $19 million per Spotrac, is even tighter than Carolina and Jacksonville’s budgets. This would mean that a cheaper, more underpriced safety like Tre Boston, or John Johnson, or even Marcus Maye would be a better option for Dallas. Nonetheless, if the demand for Williams drops, he could catch the Cowboys’ attention in NFL free agency from an expenditure perspective.