Ranking Most Likely Landing Spots for Leonard Williams in 2021 NFL Free Agency
Where will defensive lineman Leonard Williams land in free agency in 2021? This is a question pretty much no one was asking at the start of the regular season. However, Williams has flourished with the New York Giants this year—he has 8.5 sacks and a whopping 32 quarterback pressures—and is now likely to be one of the top targets on the open market.
A return to the Giants would make a lot of sense, as Williams has been at his best under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. New York, however, may not jump to hand Williams a lucrative deal.
So where might Williams drop anchor? Here, we'll examine five prime landing spots based on team need, projected salary-cap space and roster makeup.
5. Dallas Cowboys
We've listed the New York Jets as potential landing spots for several 2021 free agents because they're set to be flush with cash. However, it feels unlikely Williams will want to return to the other New Jersey team, so we'll kick things off with another squad that has struggled in 2020: the Dallas Cowboys.
Dallas has failed to remain relevant in the wake of Dak Prescott's season-ending ankle injury, but it could still be an attractive landing spot for Williams. The Cowboys are a high-profile team, should be competitive with Prescott healthy—assuming he returns on a new contract, of course—and may have the funds to give Williams a big-money deal.
Though any new pact for Prescott will change things, Dallas is projected to have more than $33 million in cap space. The fact that Texas doesn't have a state income tax could also help sway Williams.
The Cowboys will have a need for a pass-rusher opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, especially if Aldon Smith doesn't re-sign. Following his own resurgent season, Smith may depart in free agency. If he does, stealing Williams from the rival Giants would be a tremendous move.
Even with Smith, the Dallas defense has been a massive liability this season, ranking dead-last in points allowed (30.8 per game). If owner Jerry Jones hopes his team will contend for a championship in the near future, he may need to open his checkbook for a free-agent defender such as Williams.
4. Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks could use a boost to their pass defense in the offseason. While the Seahawks have been better in recent weeks—surrendering fewer than 200 net passing yards in each of the last three—they still rank dead-last in passing yards allowed (294.8 per game).
Seattle also lacks a quality edge-rusher aside from midseason acquisition Carlos Dunlap II. Safety Jamal Adams, acquired in a July trade, leads the Seahawks with 8.5 sacks. No other player has more than 4.5 of the team's 36 sacks.
Williams could improve the defense significantly by helping to generate pressure without the blitz. So far this season, Seattle has the 10th-highest blitz percentage in the league (35.3 percent), which frequently leaves fewer defenders in coverage.
A front featuring Williams, Dunlap and Jarran Reed wouldn't rival that of the San Francisco 49ers, but it would be formidable and could likely pressure quarterbacks without the support of rushing linebackers and defensive backs.
Williams has also played with Adams, his former Jets teammate. And he would join a perennial playoff contender for the first time in his career.
The Giants and Jets have given Williams the chance to shine in the New York spotlight. Seattle could give him the chance to shine in the postseason. While the Seahawks cannot afford to be the highest bidder for Williams, they are projected to have more than $16 million in cap space and could offer a reasonable contract.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns are going to get a firsthand look at Williams on Sunday. They may also chase him in the offseason. Like Seattle, Cleveland has had issues with pass defense this season—it has allowed the 13th-most passing yards (249.0 per game) and is tied for the sixth-most passing touchdowns allowed (26).
The Browns have struggled to generate consistent pressure despite having an elite edge-rusher in Myles Garrett—who has 10.5 of the team's 34 sacks. As a team, the Browns have the fourth-fewest quarterback pressures in the NFL with 94.
Garrett has been responsible for 24 of those pressures, with another 17 pressures and 7.0 sacks coming from Olivier Vernon. While Vernon has been a solid complement to Garrett, he is also 30 and playing on a one-year contract.
Swapping out Vernon for the 26-year-old Williams would allow the Browns to get younger and arguably better at the end spot opposite Garrett. A four-man front of Garrett, Williams, Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson would be a nightmare for the rest of the AFC North and could help shorten the amount of time Cleveland's inconsistent secondary is forced to cover post-snap.
The Browns have taken significant offensive strides under rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski this season. With a bit of a defensive makeover in the offseason, Cleveland could become more than just a feel-good story.
It could also afford to outbid teams such as Seattle, as the Browns are projected to have more than $26 million in cap space. While Cleveland has traditionally been the furthest thing from a perennial contender, it does appear to be a playoff squad and would offer Williams a chance to join a rising franchise.
2. Miami Dolphins
Like the Browns, the Miami Dolphins appear to be on the rise. They're 8-5 and poised to be relevant in the AFC East for the foreseeable future. This isn't the only reason why Miami could be an attractive landing spot for Williams.
With a projected $35.7 million in cap space, the Dolphins could afford to give Williams the lucrative contract he's seeking.
"His target, according to several NFL agents, should be something more like the four-year deals the Indianapolis Colts gave DeForest Buckner (four years, $84 million, $56 million guaranteed) and that the Kansas City Chiefs gave Chris Jones (four years, $80 million, $60 million guaranteed)," Vacchiano wrote. "That brings him up to $100 million if the deal is for five years."
Like Texas, Florida has no state income tax, which could be a financial factor.
With Miami, Williams would get to play for a defensive head coach in Brian Flores and join a blossoming front seven that includes Christian Wilkins, Emmanuel Ogbah and Kyle Van Noy. Williams could help lift a very good unit—ranked second in points allowed (18.8 per game)—into a championship-caliber one.
Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer have transformed the Dolphins defense over the last year—it ranked dead-last in points allowed last season (30.9 per game). It's hard to imagine they couldn't unlock Williams' superstar potential.
1. New York Giants
Is this a bit anticlimactic? Maybe, but a return to the Giants does seem to make the most sense for Williams. He has thrived under Graham and head coach Joe Judge, and he appears thrilled to be a member of this defense.
"I feel like we have a real culture here now and I love the way this team is going," Williams told reporters after a Week 13 win at the Seahawks.
The only way the Giants will let Williams get away is if they decide they cannot afford him. New York, however, is projected to have more than $19 million in cap space and should be able to find the money to pay him.
General manager Dave Gettleman in October 2019 traded a third-round pick and a conditional fifth-round pick to acquire Williams and then in March used the franchise tag to keep him. Now that the investment is paying off, Gettleman cannot let Williams walk.
New York seems ready to be relevant in the wide-open NFC East—and Saquon Barkley's return from a season-ending ACL injury could have a big impact on the division race next year. Williams has been a big part of the Giants' rise, and he should be the franchise's offseason priority.
Other teams will most certainly be in play for Williams, but the Giants are the most logical and would be arguably the best landing spot for the budding star.