Although some view him as a disappointment, it’s difficult to dispute the fact that Leonard Williams is one of the most talented players currently on the Jets roster. However, decision time is fast approaching in terms of what to do about his long-term future.
As a 2015 first round pick, Williams is still under team control next year after the team exercised his fifth-year option. Beyond that, they might consider signing him to a franchise tag and risk all the bad blood that usually accompanies such a decision.
In an ideal world, the Jets would probably like to lock up Williams to a long-term deal. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assess his value. His statistical production has been somewhat underwhelming and, while there are some viable reasons for that, many fans have become frustrated with his overall impact. There have been some calls to trade him and concerns that signing him to a big money deal could prove to be a waste of money.
Recent comments from Williams about what he would do if Todd Bowles was fired drew plenty of attention, with some writers implying Williams’ loyalties lie with his coach rather than the Jets organization. However, separate comments made by Williams suggested he relishes the challenge of seeing the process through and helping the Jets to become a contender.
The question remains though - would the Jets be better off letting Williams go and applying those resources elsewhere to otherwise improve the team?
How replaceable is Williams?
In this study, we’re going to look at how well the Jets have fared whenever Williams was not on the field this season.
If the team was significantly worse every time he left the field, then it would seem clear that his value to the team is important. However, if there was not much difference - or even an improvement - when he isn’t out there, then perhaps his value over a replacement level player is not that significant.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that and there are factors that would add important context to the data.
One such factor is that taking him out of the game is usually done to bring a fresh defender into the game to replace him. That player might be effective in small bursts but you can probably expect diminishing returns if they get a full workload.
Another factor is that some players are employed situationally. Maybe a player only enters the game in short yardage situations, so if the opposing team only averages two yards per carry when he’s in there, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting more wins than a player who plays in non-short yardage situations with the other team averaging more yards each time. Hopefully the fact that Williams plays most of the time, in all situations, means this won’t have a major effect on the numbers.
Finally, the fact he is on the field doesn’t necessarily mean that every positive play was due to his contributions or every negative play came due to his mistake.
Nevertheless, it gives us an interesting data set to give us some idea of how the team might cope without him.
Williams has the fifth highest snap count on the Jets’ defense this season but has still played less than 85 percent of the snaps in every game and only 77 percent overall. So we have a decent sample from which to review how the defense fared without him in the game.
Perhaps surprisingly, the opponents have averaged the same yardage per carry (4.4) whether or not Williams was in the game.
In fact, the overall number would be lower than that for plays with Williams out because we’ve opted to exclude kneeldowns from the analysis, even though they’d obviously be included in the team’s total for the season. (Note: plays with accepted penalties were also excluded from the analysis).
However, it’s worth noting that there were some particular games where it made a difference and others where it didn’t. In fact, it’s a pretty even split. Five of the 11 games saw the opponents average less than three yards per carry, whereas five saw the opponents average more than five yards per carry.
This suggests that some teams have been capable of exploiting the defensive line when Williams isn’t out there. The most significant of these was the Bills game, where they rushed for 84 yards on 16 carries (5.3 ypa) with Williams out. Of course, that was a big game for the Bills on the ground anyway, as they had 212 yards, but they only averaged 4.1 per carry when Williams was in.
Another factor worth considering is garbage time runs, where a team might have keeping the ball safe and running time off the clock as a priority over actually picking up yardage. They also might not want to “waste” some of their most effective variations in a situation where they don’t need to. However, working in the other direction is the fact that the Jets would be demoralized in such situations and also playing the sticks rather than limiting yardage as much as possible, so perhaps this wouldn’t give backups playing in those situations an unfair edge.
The difference in the pass defense when Williams is out of the game is much more pronounced. Opposing quarterbacks have completed at least 67 percent of their passes in nine of the 11 games and 70 percent overall when Williams has been out of the game. For the season as a whole, quarterbacks have only completed 62 percent of their passes against the Jets.
Yards per attempt and touchdown-to-interception ratio are pretty similar, translating to a quarterback rating of 93.4 which is worse than for the season as a whole (90.1) but perhaps not significantly so.
However, the Jets had two interceptions with Williams off the field in the first game and haven’t had one since. In the 10 games since then, opposing quarterbacks have posted a rating of 107.5 when Williams isn’t in the game.
The Jets have only managed to register two sacks when Williams was not on the field. Both of these were by Jordan Jenkins in the November loss to Miami. Other than that, they’ve been credited with a quarterback hit six times.
The Jets have 22 sacks on the season, so that means that only nine percent of their sack total has come with Williams in the game, despite the fact that he is out of the game 23 percent of the time.
The Jets also have 40 quarterback hits, officially, so again six represents less than 23 percent of that total.
So there is some evidence here that the team generates less pressure when he comes out and that’s presumably a big factor in the higher completion rates.
The Jets have forced four turnovers when Williams was not in the game and 15 overall. In this case, that puts the number at slightly over 23 percent, although three of those four were in the first two weeks of the season. The Jets have only forced one turnover with Williams on the bench since week two, although turnovers generally have dried up in recents weeks anyway.
Ultimately, a team in dire need of young talent that has superfluous cap space should not be entertaining the idea of jettisoning a very good player because he falls short of elite. However, if he commands elite money then it forces you to make a decision based on projections.
You’re likely to end up having to pay a premium to extend Williams long-term even though his production doesn’t stack up against some of the elite linemen in the league. However, the hope is that he will continue to ascend and the production will improve going forwards.
In the case of Williams, it should be important not to give up on him at this stage. Williams is only 24 and when you look at the leap certain elite linemen have made at or after that age, you can see that he still has a chance to make a similar jump.
Examples of linemen who weren’t as good as Williams is now at his age, but have gone on to play at an elite level include Calais Campbell, Jurrell Casey and Cameron Jordan. Akiem Hicks is even older and has made the leap this year. Fletcher Cox was a similar age when he made the leap and you can see Sheldon Rankins - who is also 24 - beginning to make that leap right now.
Obviously it’s not a move without risk, but the Jets clearly view Williams as one of their leaders and, as the analysis above shows to some extent, he wouldn’t necessarily be easy to replace. It’s certainly not a straightforward situation, as you can bet that his agents won’t necessarily agree with the teams valuation of him.