The New Orleans Saints once again find themselves staring into the barrel of the NFL salary cap.
The Saints will need to dole out roster cuts and contract restructures to get under the cap by the time the new league year begins on March 16, and they will likely have little money left over to spend on significant contributors, including their own impending free-agents, tackle Terron Armstead and safety Marcus Williams.
After identifying some landing spots for Armstead earlier in the week, it’s time to look at where Williams might land for 2022.
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The 2017 second-round pick has been the model of excellence throughout his NFL career, grading among the top-10 players at the position in four of his five years. According to PFF's Wins Above Replacement (PFF WAR) metric, he’s been one of the five most valuable safeties in the NFL since entering the league.
He may not be the kind of versatile safety who can line up at every position of the defense, but he is scheme-versatile. Whether it’s from a one- or two-high structure, Williams can be counted on to make plays in the secondary.
The Utah product could return to secure the back end for the Saints in 2022 and beyond, but recent reports indicate that it’s more likely we see him in a new city.
According to PFF’s projections, Williams will receive close to a four-year, $64.5 million deal in free agency, with $35 million guaranteed. These five teams are the most likely landing spots for Williams if he is to leave New Orleans:
Detroit has the money, the player-coach connection and the need at the position.
The Lions finished second-to-last in team coverage grade in 2021, so defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn knows he needs help on the back end. And given that he coached Williams for four seasons down in New Orleans, he could pave the way for the star safety to come up north and lead the Lions defense.
Williams generated more than two-and-a-half times the PFF WAR as fellow impending free agent Tracy Walker, Detroit's best safety in 2021. Signing Williams would go a long way toward turning this unit from liability to serviceable.
Both of Philadelphia’s starting safeties from 2021 — Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod — are set to hit the open market next week.
Harris struggled in his one year with the Eagles, earning a 61.6 PFF grade across 834 snaps. He transitioned to a more versatile role, playing closer to the line of scrimmage despite his proven track record as a deep-lying safety. McLeod was the primary deep man, and he was only marginally better, with his 64.8 PFF grade just edging out Harris.
A change in personnel would be good for this unit, which ranked 25th in successful pass rate allowed last year.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets desperately need a reliable, veteran leader for their secondary. They had seven different safeties play over 100 snaps in 2021, and none stood out in coverage. In fact, the Jets had the second-lowest-graded safety room in coverage last season.
The group played a major part in the team ranking dead last among the league's 32 defenses in expected points added (EPA) allowed per pass play.
New York ranks top five in cap space available to start the new league year and could use a portion of that to pay up for Williams, who should thrive serving the middle of the field of Robert Saleh’s single-high defense.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s system is built on single-high coverages, and their top two free safeties from a year ago — Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker — are scheduled for free agency.
Both were middle of the pack at the position, with coverage grades of 66.0 and 66.1, respectively, but signing Williams would turn the spot from reliable to elite.
Considering the Cowboys’ cap situation, signing Williams would be a long-shot scenario for Dallas. It would likely mean the team parted ways with defensive lineman Demarcus Lawrence or they failed to bring back wide receiver Michael Gallup, creating new holes on the roster.
While questions remain with the offense after the trade for quarterback Carson Wentz, the Commanders’ defense has the potential to be a top-tier unit in 2021. Making room to sign Williams will only help the cause.
Bobby McCain — an impending free agent — performed better than expected starting at free safety last season and ranked 25th at the position in PFF grade, but Williams can help take this unit to the next level. Changing teams and adjusting to terminology is always an adjustment, but New Orleans and Washington are similar in what they run, making the possible move a bit easier for Williams.