Given that New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman traded away Odell Beckham less than seven months after handing him a $95 million contract extension, you would think that there’s nothing left he could do to surprise and confound. And yet, here we are, with the Giants coming out of the woodworks to trade for New York Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams in the first-ever transaction between the interconference rivals.
The sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, Williams’ name had been swirling around in the rumor mill for weeks, as the rebuilding Jets were uninterested in drawing up a second contract for the struggling lineman.
Williams’ career arc hasn’t quite panned out as many expected — following two strong opening campaigns that included 10 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, and a pro bowl appearance in 2016, Williams has only tallied seven sacks in the subsequent 2.5 seasons, including none so far this year. Despite the lack of sack production, Williams has still had success at getting to the passer, with his 90 QB hits since entering the league in 2015 ranking as the 13th most over that period. While that total includes just five hits through seven games in 2019, Williams’ coaches often pointed out that he faced constant double teams as the most imposing threat in a paltry Jets pass rush. But the Jets selected Quinnen Williams third overall this season, and have gotten surprising production from undrafted rookie Kyle Phillips, so the expensive Leonard Williams just didn’t make sense to keep along the defensive line.
Talk started to pop up on Sunday that the Giants were interested in Williams’ services, which seemingly made them one of “multiple teams around the league” asking about the lineman out of USC. By the time Gettleman pulled the trigger, however, he was apparently the lone caller.
Less than a week ago, the going rate for Williams was “maybe a third-round pick,” which you think be a steep price for a team like the Giants, given that they will likely be picking at the top of each round in the 2020 draft, right? Well apparently not, because Gettleman then bid against himself to add-on a 2021 fifth-rounder that could potentially become a fourth-rounder if the Giants re-sign Williams, which they almost certainly will.
Gettleman has made it well known that he loves his big-bodied linemen up front — the “hog mollies,” as he calls them. He’s also stated his preference to use a rotation with his defensive front in order to keep those big guys fresh. With Williams in the fold, the struggling B.J. Hill has some work to do if he wants to see any more significant snaps this season, while fellow 2018 draft selection R.J. McIntosh will continue his fade into irrelevance (if he’s even kept around). Williams does fit in well with what has so far been a surprisingly productive Giants pass rush this season, with 22 sacks so far through eight weeks. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher has dialed up some exotic blitz packages that make everyone on the defense a potential rush threat on any given play, which is how the Giants have been able to produce those kinds of pass-rushing results despite having trouble at consistently collapsing the pocket. Meanwhile, Williams does generate consistent pressure, even if he hasn’t been great at bringing down the QB often himself, which will open up bigger lanes for rushers coming down from the second and third levels. He should also see fewer double teams now that he’s out of a Jets defense that’s among the bottom five in QB pressure rate despite blitzing at the third-highest rate in the league.
So yes, I do expect Williams to come in and improve the defense right away. Still, I can’t truly see the long-term value from a move like this. An interior lineman a few years removed from his best play coming in on an expiring deal is something a contender rolls the dice on in hopes that he’ll help with a playoff push. The Giants are a rebuilding team that has already invested heavily at that spot (three top-70 picks on interior defensive linemen in the past three drafts), while most other spots on the roster remain in flux. This defense is still two years away from being two years away, and even optimists can’t say that Wiliams will be able to move the needle enough to make up for glaring deficiencies at inside linebacker and in the secondary. The Giants ought to be hoarding draft capital to spend on cheap, young talent to plug those holes, not blowing it on defensive tackles that they now need to pay big money. And the Giants will be paying Williams a lot, because if Gettleman gives up a third-round pick and a future fifth-rounder for eight games of service in what was already a lost season and then doesn’t re-up Williams’ contract, then Gettleman might not see his contract extended either. Even if Williams does go elsewhere in the offseason and nets the Giants a third-round compensatory pick, the loss of value would be inexcusable.
Although a few years older, Malik Jackson’s three-year/$30 million deal with the Eagles last offseason could be a deal that Williams looks at in negotiations if his sack production doesn’t reappear in the second half of this season. Alternatively, he could try his hand at a one-year deal, like Dante Fowler’s $14 million pact with the Rams. If Williams is able to refind his play in Bettcher’s defense, however, and post five or so sacks over the last eight games, would it be that crazy if the 25-year-old starts thinking about Trey Flowers’s five-year/$90 million deal with the Lions? Even at that number, could Gettleman truly justify letting Williams walk to test his value on the open market? Williams and his agent hold a lot of power here.
As for the Jets, this is pretty much mission accomplished. While it looked like they were pushing all the chips in to try to contend while Sam Darnold is still on his rookie contract, that plan quickly blew up in their face, and the offseason spending spree they went on has only bought them one win in their first seven contests. Maybe there was some inclination that management would be interested in re-signing Williams if he regained his 2016 form and the team kept themselves in the playoff hunt through the entire season, but neither of those scenarios played out. At this point, any regrettable decisions (even Trent Richardson is embarrassed with Le’Veon Bell this season) are a sunk cost, and whether Williams could have fetched more this past draft weekend is irrelevant. This way, the Jets get a high third-rounder in 2020 rather than a late third in 2021 in the form of a comp pick, in addition to a future mid-round selection. Having to eat $4 million of Williams’ $6 million salary for this season does knock down the return value a bit, but still a decent haul for Gang Green, especially since they were able to wrangle this much from the only team interested in making a deal.