SALT LAKE CITY — For the past three years, former Utah free safety Marcus Williams has been a steady presence in the New Orleans Saints secondary.
He’s started all 51 games he’s played for the Saints — including five playoff games — and posted 183 tackles, 23 pass deflections and 10 interceptions thus far as a pro.
And somehow, terms like “underappreciated” and “top 25 under 25” seem to fit the unassuming, soft-spoken Williams. In recent weeks, those words have been used to describe the former Utes standout who was selected by New Orleans in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft.
“Last season, my win-contribution metric rated Williams as the sixth most valuable safety in the league.” — NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund, on Marcus Williams
This all comes as the 23-year-old heads into a contract year with the Saints amid the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In identifying the most underappreciated player for each NFL team, NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund pointed a spotlight at Williams.
“Last season, (Pro Football Focus) counted Williams as only allowing one touchdown while earning four interceptions on 21 targets with a 47.8 passer rating allowed in 2019,” Frelund wrote. “Last season, my win-contribution metric rated Williams as the sixth most valuable safety in the league.”
He had a career-best 13 pass deflections in 2019, and Williams has twice finished a season with four interceptions, including last year when was tied for 13th in the NFL in interceptions, and fifth among safeties.
While individual accolades have been sparse as a pro — he was named to the Pro Football Writers Association all-rookie team in 2017 — there are national pundits who believe Williams will continue to grow into one of the NFL’s top safeties.
CBS Sports’ Sean Wagner-McGough listed Williams 25th on his list of the top 25 NFL players under the age of 25. Wagner-McGough used three factors to determine his rankings: a player’s accomplishments so far, their future projection and their positional value. Williams was one of four safeties to make the ranking.
Pro Football Focus went even further, tabbing Williams as the 15th-best talent on its recent list of top 25 NFL players under the age of 25, saying he’s “very quietly played like one of the best safeties in the NFL over the last three seasons.”
PFF metrics rate him as the fourth-best free safety in the league, and Williams is ranked third among four safeties on their top 25 under 25 list — behind the Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James and New York Jets’ Jamal Adams, and just ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Minkah Fitzpatrick.
James, Adams and Fitzpatrick each have something on their résumé that Williams has yet to achieve: All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition.
“As a free safety, Williams doesn’t see the ball come his way all that often as the primary coverage defender, but he has put up at least eight combined interceptions and pass breakups (on 25 or fewer targets) in both 2017 and 2019. He is just another player on the list of recent Saints draft hits,” PFF’s Ben Linsey wrote.
Williams heads into the final season of his rookie deal, which will pay the former Ute $6.2 million over the first four seasons per Spotrac, with the chance to prove he’s worthy of a top-level safety salary. NFL.com’s Anthony Holzman-Escareno recently identified Adams as the player who will set the market for safeties in the near future, while listing Williams among others to consider in projecting the league’s top contracts.
In 2020, Williams will also line up opposite a veteran with a pair of Super Bowl rings. With the Saints’ starting strong safety from last year, Vonn Bell, joining Cincinnati on a three-year contract, the Saints brought back 32-year-old Malcolm Jenkins on a four-year, $32 million deal, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
Jenkins brings experience to the Saints, with 11 years and 159 starts in the league. He’s a three-time Pro Bowl strong safety who’s won Super Bowl titles with Philadelphia and New Orleans — Jenkins was a first-round draft pick by the Saints in 2009 and played five seasons for the team before excelling for the Eagles the past six years.
Jenkins also embraces being in a leadership role, where his knowledge and influence could benefit Williams.
“I value the role because I think it helps us win,” Jenkins told reporters during a conference call in March. “I think early in my career it was really knowing the defense and being able to get guys lined up so that we were all on the same page, and I think over the years it’s taken the next step to where, you know, I’m able to get guys in positions to make plays, not just get lined up in our defense, but to be able to put them in a spot where they can make a play.”
The coronavirus pandemic has prevented Williams and Jenkins from being able to get together, Williams told Sports Illustrated’s Bill Enright in a recent interview. “I’m sure in the upcoming weeks we’ll connect and talk about what’s going on this upcoming year,” Williams said. Normally around this time of year, teams would be going through organized team activities.
“It’s just hard times right now with this virus and everything going on,” Williams told Enright. “Football will come.”
For Williams, though, the focus is on the future, not the past, as the Saints try to capitalize on being considered strong Super Bowl contenders. While New Orleans has reached the playoffs each of Williams’ three seasons, the Saints have never reached the title game, falling in the NFC championship game in the 2018 season.
“You can’t just think that each year is going to be the same,” he told Enright. “You have to continue to work, you have to continue to strive to be better than you were the last year.”