Keeping DL Leonard Williams would be costly for Giants

The Giants traded a third-round pick in 2020 and fifth-rounder in 2021 to the Jets for defensive end Leonard Williams (99). AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants are in a tricky spot. They want defensive lineman Leonard Williams to return and it won’t come cheaply.

Williams’ price tag is likely to be above $10 million per season, according to multiple league sources with knowledge of the market. This despite finishing with a half a sack and two tackles for a loss in 16 games last season.

It's the price the Giants have to pay for trading multiple draft picks (third- and fifth-round selections) to the New York Jets for Williams’ services for the final eight games in 2019. They all but have to sign him now after dealing valuable assets for immediate help during a lost 4-12 season.

“He has the leverage,” one executive explained.

“Good, solid player,” a second executive said. “Just doesn’t have the splash or dominating plays.”

That is the tricky part. Williams was second on the Giants with 14 hurries after joining mid-season. Only edge rusher Markus Golden was more disruptive. Williams was also third on the team behind Golden and Lorenzo Carter with 20 QB pressures, according to NFL NextGen Stats.

But it took Williams 12 games to record a tackle for a loss. He didn’t get a piece of a sack until Week 17, and has 17.5 sacks in five seasons since being selected sixth overall in the 2015 NFL draft out of USC.

This makes determining Williams’ value difficult. On the precipice of free agency, good players often get paid like great players.

The Giants have held preliminary discussions with most of their top free agents, according to sources. They just don’t appear to be in any rush as their coaching staff gets settled. They have time, considering the free-agency period doesn't begin for another month.

What the Giants do have at their disposal for Williams is the franchise or transition tag. The franchise tag -- if Williams is considered a defensive tackle -- could marry him to the Giants for one season at $16 million, which would be a rather exorbitant price for a player with his production.

The transition tag is expected to be in the $13 million range, but would allow teams to make an offer for Williams and, if the Giants opted not to match, would bring back no compensation. However, it seems unlikely another team would submit an offer knowing the Giants would be inclined to match anything reasonable.

That's why Williams has incredible leverage. Agents often build their demands around these numbers knowing the tags are the fallback options. It makes sense for Williams’ demands to begin in the $16 million-a-year range (and not dip below $13 million), even if it’s beyond what his play dictates.

Two executives believe Williams will get in the $8 million to $12 million range. That’s less than either tag would bring. A third source believes his deal will land in the $12 million to $16 million neighborhood, because the tags are the alternative options if Williams’ representation decides to play hardball.

No matter how it plays out, it will almost certainly be a win for a player who one executive said had a “historically awful contract year.”

It’s not as if Williams wasn’t given opportunities to succeed. The Giants schemed to provide Williams prime one-on-one opportunities. He had chances but there was always something: a split-second late, the quarterback slipping through his fingers or a stumble at the most inopportune time.

The Giants were still pleased with what they saw. They liked the way Williams worked and went about his business. Their defense allowed just 3.70 yards per rush (fifth in the league) over the final eight games with him in the lineup.

“He did what we wanted him to do,” general manager Dave Gettleman said after the season.

That’s why Gettleman paid a third- and fifth-round pick (which becomes a four if he’s re-signed prior to the start of the league year on March 18) for an impending free agent.

“We felt we needed him," Gettleman said. "Again, we felt good about it and we feel, and he’s proven, he’s disruptive in there. He improved our rushing defense with him in there, he buzzes around the quarterback, we’ve just got to get him to finish now. But, the bottom line is we felt it was worth the deal. The juice was worth the squeeze.”

Williams, 25, would prefer to stay. Familiarity is key. He’s become familiar with New Jersey and liked what he saw with the Giants.

"... I'm not the type of person that likes to bounce around a lot," Williams told ESPN during the season. "... I'd like to be able to stay on this team and hopefully be a part of the rebuilding process to get this team back to a winning program again.

"I don't think the money matters as much for me. Obviously, I want to get paid, as every player wants to. This is a business now. You clearly want to get paid for your play, but at the same time, I don't think that is the most important thing for me."

It doesn’t have to be. He has the Giants right where he wants them, with the leverage clearly in his corner and the clock ticking.