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NFL free agency 2021: Leonard Williams’ potential landing spots, rumors, updates and more

It was only a year ago when the New York Giants were being laughed at by many who thought they got fleeced in their trade with the New York Jets to land Leonard Williams, but that’s no longer the case (mostly, anyway). After posting less than one sack in 2019, Williams went on a tear for the Giants in 2020, racking up a career-best 11.5 sacks in 16 games played with 12 starts, which happens to be a hefty 4.5 sacks more than his second-best campaign (2016). The Pro Bowl defensive lineman is now set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason but, for the second consecutive year, the Giants hold the cards as to what happens next.

A second franchise tag would cost them $19.4 million against a salary cap that’ll likely be less than what it was last season, while also opening up another can of worms — considering that’s pay for a defensive tackle and not a defensive end ($21.4 million). This positional argument remains a point of contention between he and the Giants that sits in arbitration from 2020 and has yet to see a resolution, so going in for seconds wouldn’t exactly be wise by New York, although they’re within their rights to do so.

With a market value currently sitting at around $11.2 million, per Spotrac, it’ll be interesting to see what Williams gets on the open market — assuming he reaches it — because there are several teams that would like to throw their jersey his way. They’ll have to pony up a palatable offer and likely convince Williams he’ll have no worries about continuing to suffer losing seasons with them, and at least four teams outside of New York fit this bill.

[Note: Cap numbers are based upon the $180 million floor, and not the pending final cap figure — courtesy of Spotrac]

1. New York Giants

Approximate cap space: $5.01 million

Let’s give the incumbent team the edge over all on this list, and also because general manager Dave Gettleman is hellbent on keeping Williams for a couple reasons. The first is obvious, in that Williams panned out how Gettleman hoped he would, and after the latter received a wave of criticism after trading for him — only to then franchise tag him in 2020 following a season that saw him log a career-worst 0.5 sacks. Now, while that’s all well and good, there’s also a fracture that exists here and the sooner it gets patched, the better New York’s chances of keeping him around on a long-term deal. Williams is still locked in an arbitration against the team over the tag payout for 2020, so tagging him again would surely incense him (but also keep him right where he currently sits). Things might quickly devolve from there, so it would behoove Gettleman to make things right and also put a multiyear offer on the table Williams finds pleasing. 

2. Seattle Seahawks

Approximate cap space: $11.1 million

Williams is tired of losing at the NFL level, and no one on this list could change that trajectory faster than the Seahawks. Sure, they’re currently muddled in a rift with Russell Wilson, but they still [also] have work to do outside of repairing that relationship. Protecting Wilson will be paramount going forward, but providing him with a defense that helps to prevent him from having to play hero ball will go a long way in smoothing his ruffled feathers as well. Too often last season Wilson found himself trying to save the day after the opposing offense had its way, and it often ended poorly. Maybe if Williams was on the field there would’ve been no Hail Murray, or maybe there still would’ve been, but these are the types of questions Seattle must ask itself in discussing Williams or any other possible add-on in the pass rush. If they want to get back to owning the uber-competitive NFC West, they better get back to hitting quarterbacks.

3. Tennessee Titans

Approximate cap space: $5.08 million

With Watt choosing the Cardinals, the Titans are again left trying to figure out what to do on their defensive line. The experiment with Jadeveon Clowney didn’t yield the results they wanted, and it’s clear they have to address their lack of a consistent pass rush. Enter Williams, who indeed struggled at times in his career before figuring it out in a major way last season, and who has the ability to rush the passer from either the edge or the interior — the latter being more of where the Titans should look to play him. Without taking the appropriate measures to bully opposing quarterbacks, the folks in Nashville might always be close enough to taste a possible shot at a Super Bowl but just far enough to avoid being able to reach out and grab it. It would take some cap maneuvering to pay Williams what he wants, but it’s definitely worth a shot. 

4. Cleveland Browns

Approximate cap space: $25.74 million

One thing the Browns are never afraid to do is spend big in free agency, and they’re also a team looking to take their defense to a level capable of doing what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, especially considering it was the Chiefs that narrowly slipped past Cleveland in the AFC Divisional Round to eventually land that shot at Tom Brady. The Browns are onto something special with Kevin Stefanski calling the shots, and could be just one or two moves away from stepping past the Chiefs and stiff-arming the capable Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens atop the conference by adding Williams to a front that also includes Myles Garrett. It’s unclear if Olivier Vernon will return and even if he does, there are going to be question marks regarding his health until he gets on the field and proves he’s fine after suffering a torn Achilles in 2020. It all points to Williams being a great addition, if Cleveland can make it happen.

5. Miami Dolphins

Approximate cap space: $28.08 million

You know what’s better than seeing chunks of your income carved out for state taxes? The opposite. This would be a nice selling point the Dolphins could wave around at Williams, and one that might also allow them to peel back their potential offer just a tad because, mathematically, it’s possible for Williams to sign a slightly lesser deal in South Florida and yet take home much more than he would if he remains in New York — or if he goes elsewhere that employs a state tax. The other side of the equation is the fact the Dolphins would adore a tandem of Williams and Emmanuel Ogbah, the latter having come on strong in a career 2020 season. There are good things happening in the Dolphins linebacker and secondary units, but more firepower is needed in the trenches, and Williams could be one of the prescriptions for what ails them. And trading New York weather for Miami sun will only help their pitch.

Sleeper pick: Jacksonville Jaguars

Approximate cap space: $82.7 million

At this point, you have to believe Williams is tired of fighting over money and his overall value. Neither would likely be an issue in North Florida, because the Jaguars have a dire need for an impact defensive lineman and all the money in the world to pay for one. That’s going to be an attractive combination for Williams, and one that’s hard to pass up in free agency. The caveat here is obvious though, because he’s also spent his entire career without ever knowing what it feels like to have a winning record, and at one point voiced his displeasure at just how much losing he’s been subjected to at the NFL level. So as the Jaguars put together a proposal for him, convincing him the Urban Meyer era will be one of glory better also be in the PowerPoint. 

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