FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - By the end of his second straight disappointing season, it looked like Leonard Williams had played himself right out of the Jets' long-term plans. A lucrative contract extension wasn't even on the back burner. Some around the NFL thought he'd be available in a trade.
That, though, was the old Jets' regime. With coach Adam Gase and GM Joe Douglas in charge now, the 25-year-old Williams is most definitely in the new regime's plans.
Privately and publicly, the new braintrust of the Jets' organization - Gase, Douglas, and even defensive coordinator Gregg Williams - have all raved about Williams' ability and potential. They know he's underachieved - just seven sacks in the last two seasons - but they believe they can get his production to go way up.
And if that happens, Williams could end up with the mega-deal and the long-term future with the Jets that he's always seemed to want.
"That's definitely something that's a motivation," Williams said on Monday. "As much as I don't want to focus on my contract, that's still another form of motivation for the season."
That's understandable because top-tier contracts for pass rushers have gone through the roof. Just last offseason, Trey Flowers got a five-year, $90 million contract with $40 million guaranteed from the Detroit Lions and DeMarcus Lawrence received five years, $105 million with $65 million guaranteed from the Cowboys.
It's hard to tell his value because there haven't been any contract talks yet, according to a source, with both sides preferring to wait and see how this season goes. But while Leonard Williams might not be in that financial stratosphere yet, with one double-digit sack season at his age, he might end up pretty close.
That wasn't even a consideration last year, as the player the Jets took sixth overall in 2015 had somehow registered only 17 sacks in his first four NFL seasons and famously seemed content with his "hidden production" - production that rarely leads to a big pay day. The Jets did pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, worth $14.2 million this season. But he sure seemed headed for unrestricted free agency after that.
The new Jets' staff sees him differently, though. Gase and Gregg Williams have been glowing about the 6-foot-5, 302-pounder since they got here. Gase, in particular, remembers having all sorts of trouble with Leonard Williams when he was coaching the Miami Dolphins the last three years.
"I don't know what it was, but when he played us, he was a nightmare," Gase said. "We doubled him the whole game."
Their belief is that they will be able to create a perfect storm for Williams to thrive. The Gregg Williams defense is aggressive, bringing pressure from everywhere, which should keep offenses off balance and make it hard to double Leonard Williams all the time. They also believe they'll use him in a way that will make him more productive - something former Jets coach Todd Bowles often struggled to do.
And the addition of rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams should be a big boost to Leonard Williams' production. If he's the kind of interior presence and pass rusher that everyone thinks he'll be, offensive lines are going to have their hands full with the two of them. And the more attention Quinnen Williams gets, the more likely Leonard Williams will be to break free.
If all that happens according to plan, then Leonard Williams will look a lot like the players Bowles and former Jets GM Mike Maccagnan always expected him to be. They couldn't get the top-end production out of him, though. If this regime can, Williams will end up with some top-end pay checks, too.