The New Orleans Saints used the franchise tag on safety Marcus Williams ahead of Tuesday's deadline, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported. Williams was the NFL's seventh-highest-graded safety last season and the 15th-ranked player on PFF's free agency rankings.
Williams has been the model of consistency over his relatively short NFL career, and his elite play has allowed the Saints' defense to use elaborate schemes, knowing they had the perfect last line of defense.
Mostly played as a free safety, he also has some scheme versatility and doesn't miss many tackles in any part of the field. He has graded above 70.0 in every season of his career so far, with two of his seasons surpassing 88.0.
According to PFF WAR, Williams has been the third-most-valuable safety in the NFL since 2018, behind Green Bay's Adrian Amos and Minnesota's Harrison Smith.
What it means for the New Orleans Saints
Since entering the league in 2017, Williams has ranked near the top of the league in every significant category for safeties. He has earned a coverage grade in the 90th percentile to go with the league's highest forced-incompletion rate.
Williams is also a solid run defender with the skills to fit as a free safety in any scheme, and the Saints have deployed him in both single-high and two-high shells in the past. He played very well opposite Malcolm Jenkins in 2020, whom New Orleans brought back to the Crescent City after a stint with the Eagles.
New Orleans recently made it clear that retaining Williams was priority No. 1 this offseason, and the use of the tag here all but ensures that edge defender Trey Hendrickson will get to test the market.
New Orleans is once again hovering around $60 million over the projected 2021 salary cap with just eight days until the 2021 league year begins. It remains to be seen whether the two sides can hammer out a multi-year extension in the coming days, but that would help the Saints lower Williams’ 2021 cap hit.
Interior defender Sheldon Rankins agreed to a rather unorthodox contract “extension” by adding void years to his fifth-year option before the 2020 season to help the Saints clear cap space, so perhaps New Orleans can ask Williams to do the same. However, helping the Saints in this way is undoubtedly a concession from the player.
New Orleans may have to ask cornerback Marshon Lattimore and/or tackle Ryan Ramczyk — both of whom are scheduled to play on the fifth-year option in 2021 — to do the same. But unlike Rankins, who ended last season on injured reserve, Ramczyk and Lattimore were playing excellent football.
The Saints can cut players such as linebacker Kwon Alexander, which would clear $13.5 million alone, but the team will have to carry out a bevy of other moves to get under the cap with the addition of Williams.
Restructures for receiver Michael Thomas, guard Andrus Peat, tackle Terron Armstead and safety Malcolm Jenkins are some options, with veterans Emmanuel Sanders and Janoris Jenkins also possibilities. Additional cuts may be necessary, as well, with running back Latavius Murray (among others) standing out as a possibility.
One thing is for certain: Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and VP of Football Administration Khai Harley have made it such that whenever a team tells a player they cannot make something work for cap reasons, they are not telling the whole truth. The salary cap is not fake, as ramifications will continue to be felt — New Orleans was unable to sign Jadeveon Clowney last offseason, for example — but it can be manipulated to an extreme degree for years on end.
What it means for Williams and the safety market
Williams and his representation are likely still working on getting something done before the 2021 league year begins on March 17, especially considering how beneficial it could be for the Saints. While he was surely looking at a robust market in free agency, a lot of free safeties will hit the market this offseason.
Williams becomes the third such player to receive the franchise tag, joining Justin Simmons (who received his second consecutive tag) and Marcus Maye. This is great news for Rams safety John Johnson III and Vikings safety Anthony Harris, who should now have a handful of suitors.
Because the three top options are all receiving the franchise tag, the safety market as a whole may continue to be suppressed and lag behind the rest of the league. Cardinals' Budda Baker currently tops the market at $14.75 million per year, more than $5 million per year less than Rams corner Jalen Ramsey at the other secondary spot.