Bent, theJetsBlog.com Follow on Twitter
One dilemma facing the Jets over the next few years is how to handle Leonard Williams' contract situation.
The Jets unsurprisingly picked up the fifth-year option on Williams' rookie deal last April, so they'll control his rights next year, with the option to franchise him in 2020. However, this will mean his salary escalates dramatically, to a level some believe is too high based on his production levels.
A long-term extension is one option, but determining his value is likely to prove problematic. One alternative to this would be to pick up some value for him in a trade, and let establishing his value become someone else's problem. This weekend, ESPN's Rich Cimini wrote that this could be a possibility during the offseason, suggesting the Jets might look to see if they could deal him for a second-round pick or more.
It's understandable that Jets fans might not want to shell out big money to another defensive lineman, especially after the long-term deal they gave Muhammad Wilkerson ended up backfiring for a variety of reasons. Williams had a career-low 42 tackles in 2018, and his sack totals have been nowhere near those of players like JJ Watt and Aaron Donald, who had 16 and 20.5 respectively this season. Williams has just 17 in his entire four-year career.
Nevertheless, he was still one of the Jets' top defensive performers last season, leading the team in tackles for loss and quarterback hits.
In any case, Williams' contributions cannot solely be measured by raw statistics, as he typically saw the most attention from opposing teams in terms of double-teams or plays designed to go away from him. This enabled players like Henry Anderson and Jordan Jenkins, who tied for the team-lead with seven sacks each, to work more one-on-one match-ups.
Williams also directly enabled them to generate some of that production by creating the initial pressure, which led them to clean up. His disruptiveness also benefited players like Steve McLendon, Mike Pennel and Avery Williamson against the run.
Beyond his on-field performance, Williams is a positive locker-room influence and viewed as part of the team's core moving forward, so letting him go could send the wrong message to other players, including prospective free-agent signings. This isn't the same as when they traded Sheldon Richardson, who had been involved in several off-field incidents and was becoming a distraction.
The Jets acquired a second-round pick and Jermaine Kearse for Richardson before the 2017 season, which was a good return, especially since Richardson's star had faded even further than that of Williams. However, if Richardson had ascended to superstar status over the past two years, it would be viewed as a big mistake and that's a concern if the Jets were to move Williams now.
Although he's been in the league for four seasons, it's easy to forget that Williams is still only 24 and has already been a Pro Bowler once. Many top defensive linemen have improved dramatically after they turned 25, including current Pro Bowlers Cameron Heyward, Jurrell Casey and Akiem Hicks.
If paired with more disruptive front seven players, Williams could put up much better numbers in the years ahead.
Bill Parcells' Jets 20 years ago made a trade in a similar situation that should serve as a cautionary tale. While not a Pro Bowler, Hugh Douglas was a young defensive lineman who had established himself as a dynamic player on a struggling team. He racked up double-digits in sacks once, and ended up with 22 overall in his first three seasons. However, following a slight drop-off in production in year three, Parcells opted to trade him for draft picks in the second and fifth round.
Douglas went on to rack up 58 more sacks in seven seasons after leaving the Jets, and was a multiple-time All-Pro and Pro Bowler. Having used one of the two picks to move back and acquire a couple more picks, the players the Jets ended up with - Casey Dailey, Dorian Boose, Kevin Williams and Eric Bateman - barely contributed anything as Jets.
The Jets actually went to the AFC title game in the following season, but they did so with a defensive line lacking star power, and that remained a major weakness until they used two first round picks on Shaun Ellis and John Abraham in 2000. Retaining Douglas arguably could have been enough to push that 1998 team over the top.
Once the Jets decide on their new coach, the obvious thing to do with Williams is to let him play out the 2019 season on his fifth-year option. After that, they'll have still have plenty of options and the appropriate path should hopefully be clearer.