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The Giants enter the 2021 offseason coming off of a season that showed plenty of promise but ultimately fell just short of a trip to the playoffs. Head coach Joe Judge looks to continue to build a winning program, but it will likely take another successful offseason from general manager Dave Gettleman in order for the Giants to take a step further in the 2021 season.
Gettleman hit on most his moves last offseason, including signing James Bradberry and Blake Martinez, two cogs on the Giants defense. He’ll look to replicate that success this time around, but he’s got some very big decisions to make.
So let’s take a look at perhaps the biggest question facing Gettleman and the Giants this offseason: What to do with free agent Leonard Williams …
Why should Williams stay?
This time last year, there was no way the Giants would even think about dishing out a big-money, long-term deal for Williams, as he came off a 2019 season in which he totaled just one-half sack, switching New York teams in a mid-season trade that cost the Giants a 2020 third-rounder and a conditional fifth-round pick in 2021.
But in one season, Leonard made the trade that once seemed like a nightmare turn into a big win for the Giants, as he broke out for a career-best 11.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. He was constantly in the backfield and proved to be the disruptive force most teams thought he’d be coming out of USC.
The trade assets the Giants gave up alone would be reason to at least consider a long-term deal for Williams, but the lineman’s breakout 2020 season on the field proved that he’s an invaluable part of Patrick Graham’s defense. During the Eli Manning era, the Giants were built on their disruptive defensive front, as players like Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, and others allowed the Giants to rush four and drop in coverage behind them.
That was the kind of thing Williams was able to provide in 2020, as even when he wasn’t getting to the quarterback, he was disrupting and moving the pocket to alter the offensive play call.
The Giants have added playmakers on the back end of the defense with the likes of Bradberry, Xavier McKinney, Logan Ryan, and Jabrill Peppers, and they have a strong linebacking corps led by Martinez. Williams was the anchor of the defensive line in 2020, and with him only being 26 years old, there’s a chance Williams can continue to lead the D-line for many years to come.
Plus, if the Giants let Williams walk, they’ll likely have to sign another free agent to step in as a starter, and while players like Ndamukong Suh, DaQuan Jones, and Denico Autry are options for the interior of the line, it would certainly be helpful for everyone to bring Williams back for a second year in Graham’s defensive, rather than having someone new to the system come in.
Williams had his best season as a pro with the Giants in 2020, and there’s reason to think he’s only just reached the prime of his career, so why let him spend that prime with another team?
Why should Williams go?
Currently, the Giants have about $4.5 million in cap space, ranking 21st of the 32 teams according to Spotrac.com, but they project to be about $20 million under the cap this offseason, and perhaps even further under the mark depending on what happens with Nate Solder, Kevin Zeitler and Golden Tate. And Williams won’t come cheap.
After earning $16.1 million as the Giants’ franchise tag player last season, Williams is set to earn even more in 2021 and beyond. Earlier this offseason, SNY NFL Insider Ralph Vacchiano checked in with scouts and execs on a what a long-term deal could look like, with Williams likely going to ask for at least $21-22 million per season at either four or five years. It’s a hefty price tag for lineman, particularly one who plays on the interior and not out on the edge, where the real big-money players make their livings.
The Giants will have the space to afford that kind of deal, but if they pull the trigger, will they have enough to address their other needs? After all, the Giants still have plenty of spots along the roster that they must add to, like the receiving corps, the offensive line, and likely at edge rusher as well. Would it be worth it for the Giants to handcuff themselves to a massive Williams deal when they have other issues that must be addressed?
Aside from the pure financials of the matter, there’s also this question: Which Leonard Williams is going to show up for the next four or five years? Sure, Williams was outstanding in 2020, but before that, he was bordering more on the lines of being a bust than of being a star defensive player. In his first five seasons combined, Williams racked up a total of 17.5 sacks in 79 games, and there were plenty of times where his impact on the game didn’t seem to live up to his billing as the 6th overall pick in 2015 draft. Yes, he was a Pro Bowl selection in 2016 when he totaled 7.0 sacks, but he often failed to show up big in big moments.
What’s the right move?
Again, this time last year, there is no way that the Giants and Williams looked like they’d be a match for a long-term deal.
But a lot can change in a year.
Williams is going to get paid this offseason, so why shouldn’t the Giants be the team to do it? He’s clearly proven that he can thrive in Graham’s scheme, and he even took on more of a leadership role in his first full season with Big Blue.
The Giants are going to have the money to sign Williams to the kind of deal he’s looking for, and even if that means they’ll have less to spend elsewhere, bringing Williams back looks to be a good investment.
The Giants have the opportunity to lockdown a young, disruptive lineman, and they should do whatever it takes to make it happen.