Jets GM Mike Maccagnan made it clear he had no worries about the state of the Jets' defensive line heading into the offseason. Sure, they've lost a lot of talent in recent years, trading Sheldon Richardson, cutting Muhammad Wilkerson and not re-signing Damon Harrison.
But they still have Leonard Williams, the sixth pick of the 2015 draft, and despite a down season last year, the Jets have huge expectations for him.
Williams does, too. The 23-year-old sounds sure this will finally be the season that he realizes all his potential.
"It's definitely time to step up and take it to the next level," Williams said on a conference call Monday, the first day of the Jets' offseason training program. "That comes with a lot. It's just not my play on the field. It comes with my leadership, how I approach work, how much time I'm putting in outside of the mandatory hours into my craft, into my game."
That will be music to the Jets' ears, because they consider the 6-foot-5, 302-pounder to be a cornerstone of their entire rebuilding effort, and one of the core players they hope to build around on defense. It's why they intend to pick up his fifth-year option for 2019, a team source confirmed, before the May 3 deadline.
The dream, though, is to lock Williams into a lucrative, long-term contract that solidifies his place as the future of the Jets. Just how lucrative, though, depends on if he really can reach the "next level." He has been a good, but not great, player for most of three seasons in the league, topping out with only seven sacks in 2016. Last season, the Jets' pass rush was a major disappointment, and Williams was an enormous part of that with only two.
That's not to say he wasn't disruptive, though. He was. And that's the problem. The difference between good pass rushers and great pass rushers is the great ones know how to finish. That's the level Williams wants to get to. For now, though, he's only "close."
"I think I've always been right there with all the quarterback hits and stuff like that," Williams said. "The years that I don't have a lot of sacks, I still have a lot of quarterback hits. That's always been my goal to just not have it close anymore and (turning) those hits into sacks. Getting that one step closer. I've always been right there. So I'm pretty sure it's close and I'm pretty sure everybody can see that."
True to his word, Williams has already begun work on bridging the gap. He said he's already worked with La'Roi Glover, the Jets' new assistant defensive line coach, on improving his first step -- the key to getting an edge on offensive linemen.
"We think that first step is a big key," Williams said. "It all starts with that first step. The faster I can get that first step off of the ground and into the backfield, I'm that much closer to the sack. It's just small details like that."
Those small details could be huge to the Jets, because Williams is now the player they're building around up front -- and it's a much different plan from back when they had Richardson, Wilkerson and Harrison. Regardless of the circumstances that led to their departure, those were three terrific players when they were at their peaks.
Now it'll be up to Williams to carry a line that also has 32-year-old defensive tackle Steve McLendon and a mix of other potentially solid players like Xavier Cooper or Mike Pennel.
That's a lot to ask of a player so young. And it's even hard for Williams to accept that he's the elder statesman of the Jets' line now.
"I don't think it has sunk in yet," he said. "I mean, it's pretty crazy to think about how fast the time has gone by. Just getting here as a rookie and having Snacks and Sheldon and Mo here -- and being the one guy left out of all those guys.
"I don't think it applies more pressure. I think the pressure's always been a factor being a first rounder coming in and playing with a lot of good guys already. I'm comfortable under pressure and I trust my teammates to trust me. I trust myself to be a better leader this year and just taking it to the next level."
The Jets trust him to do that, too.