Saints free agent report card: Was Jamaal Williams a good veteran signing?

We’re kicking off our New Orleans Saints free agent report cards with Jamaal Williams. The veteran running back didn’t meet expectations in 2023 after being heralded as an ideal tag-team partner for Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill. Here’s a look back at his first season in New Orleans, his contract status, and what’s next for him:

Free agent contract

Williams signed a three-year contract last spring valued at $12 million, with $8.15 million guaranteed — the Saints guaranteed his salary in both 2023 and 2024 along with his signing bonus. He’ll also receive a $700,000 roster bonus if he’s on the team by March 18.

While this isn’t a ton of money (relative to running back salaries around the league), the contract is structured very favorably for Williams. If the Saints choose to release him as things stand now it would cost them an extra $1.64 million. He has a lot of security and the Saints have very little leverage to coerce him into a pay cut.

So right now his salary cap hit is set at $4.63 million, which is a lot for an underachieving backup who turns 29 in April. Designating Williams a post-June 1 cut would only save $700,000 and limit the Saints’ options for getting out of contracts with Jameis Winston or Michael Thomas (teams are only allowed to designate two of those each spring). Trading Williams may be an option but it’s unlikely they’ll find many buyers at this stage in the offseason.

Moving him before the NFL draft is not realistic. If the Saints are determined to get out of their contract with him over the summer they could trade him after June 1 and save $3.85 million, but it might take a team with injuries at the position getting desperate to cut a deal. Expect Williams to return for 2024, banking on a resurgence in a more-creative and better-executed running game.

Snap counts

Williams was on the field for just 324 snaps across 13 games last season, the second-lowest total of his career (he played 317 snaps in 13 games for the Detroit Lions in 2021). He missed time with a hamstring injury early in the season and played through a groin issue late in the year. Durability has been a concern; the 17 games he appeared in for Detroit in 2022 was the first full season he played since 2018 on the Green Bay Packers.

Season stats

These are rough numbers: Williams had 106 carries for just 306 rushing yards in 2023, converting 19 first downs and scoring a single touchdown run. He also caught 18 passes (on 20 targets) for a modest 62 receiving yards, picking up just one first down as a receiver. That’s hardly the big red zone threat the Saints envisioned when they signed him. He had as many touchdowns as fumbles.

But a lot of those struggles can go on the offensive line. Williams averaged a career-low 1.5 yards before contact per attempt, which reflects the poor blocking in front of him. He was never able to work up any momentum while getting hit so close to the line of scrimmage. At the same time, Williams didn’t make as many plays as we’ve seen before. He only broke three tackles and lacked burst in the open field.

Season recap, future outlook

This was a rough year for Williams. The Saints needed him to step into the lineup and make some plays with Alvin Kamara suspended to start the season and Kendre Miller injured for much of his rookie year, but Williams didn’t deliver. We can blame the offensive line and poorly-executed blocking scheme as well as Pete Carmichael’s play calling and design, all of which is being retooled this offseason, but there were opportunities for Williams to stand out and he continued to fall short.

Hopefully he can bounce back this year. But his presence should not stop the Saints from adding another running back, ideally through the draft. They need fresh legs and big-play potential like they need water. If they can find a talented young runner who can consistently shake a defender and pick up a dozen yards, there’s a good chance Williams ends up being traded or let go after training camp. But until that emerges, he and the Saints are stuck together, and they need to focus on figuring out this partnership.

Report card grade

We should recognize all of Williams’ contributions this season when putting the letter grade on his report card. He was asked to block and line up as a fullback — unexpectedly — in the wake of a knee injury to Adam Prentice, and his willingness to help the team there is commendable. It’s part of why he was so well-liked in the locker room and why his teammates rallied to get him a touchdown in the season’s final seconds.

Still, we can’t overlook the bigger concerns here. Williams didn’t add much to the running game in terms of physicality at the line of scrimmage or speed in the open field. He didn’t pick up many yards or move the chains when thrown to. He needs to get healthy and show the new coaching staff he can be an asset in their offense. Right now, this is looking like a swing and a miss by the Saints front office. Let’s hope he rebounds in 2024.

Grade: D

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire