I have been a big supporter of Leonard Williams’ throughout his tenure with the Jets. I think a lot of the criticism he has received over the years is often undeserved. While he has not quite been the dominant force many experts promised he would be when the Jets took him sixth overall in 2015, Williams has still been a high impact player for the team.
He has made 132 run tackles short of the sticks for a gain of two yards or less, which since 2015 is more than any other defensive lineman not named Damon Harrison. He ranked top-15 among interior defensive linemen in total pressures each season from 2015-18, including two seasons ranking sixth in the stat (2016 and 2018).
When you compare him against his own draft class, Williams still seems like the right pick in the slot he was taken. His career approximate value of 33 ranks seventh in the 2015 draft class and sixth among first round picks. The next three players selected after Williams were Kevin White, Vic Beasley, and Ereck Flowers. White and Flowers were busts for the teams that selected them. Beasley has been disappointing outside of a fluky season in 2016.
Williams entered 2019 with high expectations. It seemed the table was set for him to finally become that truly dominant force the Jets hoped they were stealing from the league at sixth overall four years ago. Gregg Williams would allow for Leo to do more aggressive penetrating and less conservative gap reading. Quinnen Williams would give him a partner to get some of those double teams off of him (in his own words!). Of course, Leo has not gotten to enjoy much time with his new teammate, as the Alabama product was sidelined for Weeks 2 & 3.
Most importantly, it was a contract year, and we know how players tend to have breakout seasons when there is money on the line.
Additionally, Williams seemed overdue for some sacks to come his way. His disparity between pressures/hits and sacks has been otherworldly. Nobody else in the league has even been remotely close to Leo when it comes to producing lots of pressure but few sacks.
Through three weeks in 2019, Williams has not been able to have that breakout season. While that would make the decision to extend him a more difficult one, at least the Jets can feel comfortable about getting more quality play from Williams in 2019, right?
No. Williams has not only failed to have that breakout contract year, but he has played well below his usual standards as well.
With eight pressures to date, Williams ranks a career-low 20th in the stat among interior defensive linemen. That ranking oversells him — six of those pressures came against the Browns, with many of them coming unblocked and ending with Leo failing to finish sacks that he should have been able to.
In Weeks 1 & 3, Williams put up a combined two pressures, including zero in Foxboro. He ranks 25th out of 43 qualified defensive linemen in pass rushing productivity (per-snap pressure rate, giving greater weight to sacks and hits). Among the top 20 interior defensive linemen with the most pass rush opportunities, Williams owns the fifth-worst pass rush productivity rate.
Williams is on pace for a career-low 16 quarterback hits, which is a decent number (would tie for 38th among all defenders in 2018) but one that would fall three shy of his previous low.
Given their losses on the edge, the Jets have needed Williams to produce as a pass rusher more than ever. Without Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland (who together are an average duo at best), the Jets have probably put out the worst group of edge defenders in the league this season.
Good interior penetration can mitigate that weakness, but Leo has failed to get it done. As expected, Gregg has given him the chances. Leo is averaging a career high 36.0 pass rush snaps per game and a career low 17.3 run defense snaps per game. He has rushed the quarterback on 66.7 percent of his snaps, a career high.
The Jets need Leo to put heat on the quarterback more than they’ve ever needed him to. They’ve given him more chances than they ever have before. Yet, he has been producing less pressure than he ever has.
Leo’s run defense has not been very good, either. The dominant run stops he usually produces relatively frequently have not been there. Williams has two solo tackles for a run stuff, both of those coming in garbage time against the Patriots. From 2015-18, Williams had 83 solo run stuffs, which ranked third among interior defensive linemen behind only Kawann Short and Damon Harrison. With his measly two solo run stuffs, Williams is on pace for 10.7 of those this season, barely more than half of his previous elite per-season average of 20.8.
Off the statsheet, Williams has not created as much impactful penetration as we’re used to seeing from him, either. He was also sealed out of the play on multiple touchdown runs allowed by the defense in September.
Barring a miraculous elevation to elite status following the bye week, it does not seem like Williams is in a great spot to earn an extension from the Jets, especially considering he is looking to get it from a general manager and head coach that were not around when he was drafted.
Regardless, if the Jets are going to salvage the 2019 season before it’s too late, they need the Leonard Williams of old. Even if he is not the monstrous behemoth we hoped to see this year, he can still do a lot to help out a football team by doing exactly what he has been doing since entering the league.
The Jets will be getting boosts from quite a few returning players over the next few weeks. Hopefully, vintage Leonard Williams is among them.