New York Jets – Raising Leonard Williams’ Expectations

Daniel Essien breaks down reasonable expectations for New York Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams in 2018..

New York Jets 2015 1st round selection Leonard Williams has had a mostly positive tenure with the team so far. However, there has been discussion regarding Williams’ production the last few seasons. It’s arguable that he hasn’t played up to the standards of his 6th overall selection. Let’s examine how his play stacks up to his peers and why this year is the time for him to take the next step.

By The Numbers

Leonard Williams is one of the top defensive line talents in the NFL but his production hasn’t reflected that consistently. Defensive line play is about much more than sacks and tackles. They have to take on double teams, and often maintain responsibilities away from the ball. Sometimes it’s hard to quantify a defensive lineman’s productivity but advanced stats certainly help.

In his rookie season, playing beside Sheldon Richardson, and an actually motivated Mo Wilkerson, Williams had to share snaps. He had 3 sacks but he also had 50 pressures that season. In his second season, Williams’ role began to expand as the Jets increased his snaps. He had his best season as a Jet, recording 8 sacks and 55 pressures. He was also second amongst all interior defensive lineman in defensive stops with 48 (ironically only trailing Damon Harrison).

In Williams’ third season last year, the hope was that Williams would take the next step after his encouraging 2016 season. However, the production just wasn’t there. Despite leading all 3-4 defensive ends in QB hits, Williams had just 2 sacks all season and his tackles/run stops declined from 2016. Really the only significant difference in his surroundings that can be pointed to is the loss of Sheldon Richardson, who took some of that attention away from Williams, particularly in pass rush.

Williams finished ranked 21st amongst interior defenders in 2017, according to PFF. He wasn’t in the top 10 as pass rusher or a run stopper amongst interior defenders. Many pointed to the QB hits (17) to say Leonard Williams still had a good season. But is that really the isolated stat we want to base success for him on? Shouldn’t we be comparing him more to his peers on a grander scale?

Against His Peers

A major disclaimer right off the bat: we’re not going to bring up Aaron Donald because he’s a walking golden jacket. But there are other interior defensive lineman with whom we can compare Williams’ production. Here are some players that he should at least be performing in line with.

Kansas City Chiefs 2016 2nd round selection, defensive end Chris Jones is a good comparison. A fellow 3-4 defensive end, Jones’ production actually increased last season after they lost Dontari Poe in free agency. Jones had 6 sacks, 3 forced fumbles last season, and finished ranked the 12th best interior defender by PFF. Jones did all of this while playing 186 fewer snaps than Leonard Williams. Williams should be at least on par with Jones.

Next is Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 2nd round pick, Stephon Tuitt. He’s another 3-4 defensive end. His production arc has actually been similar to Leonard Williams. In his second season, like Williams, Tuitt had his best season with sack  (7 sacks) and tackles (36 tackles) totals but those numbers decreased his 3rd and 4th year. However, his play improved each year despite the low number lack of sacks and tackles. It helps that he’s playing with All-Pro Cam Heyward on the other side. Ironically, one of the goal for Tuitt’s 4th season (last year) should be one of Leonard Williams’ goals for 2018:

Tennessee Titans 2011 3rd round pick, Jurrell Casey is probably the best true 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. Last season, he had 7 sacks, and 60 total tackles while ranking as the 6th best pass rusher amongst interior defensive lineman (best amongst 3-4 defensive ends), according to PFF. He was a big part of the Titans having the 4th best run defense in the NFL. Casey is who Williams should be competing with in terms of his production.

We see here that Williams has some work to do to be where he should be amongst his peers with the potential that he had coming into the league. However, there’s another piece to this that more involves his utilization. While Casey’s numbers prove there’s room to grow, he’s a bit of an anomaly. Could the Jets actually be able to put Williams in a better position to succeed schematically?

The Scheme

The best 3-4 defensive ends tend to not produce as much as the best 4-3 defensive tackles. 3-4 defensive ends usually to do a bit more dirty work, freeing up linebackers inside and outside to make plays. However, it’s possible to get the best of both worlds. Let’s use one more peer comparison to illustrate how scheme can impact an interior defensive lineman’s production.

The 49ers 2017 1st round pick (7th overall) DE Deforest Buckner projected as a 3-4 defensive end in the NFL and was used this way initially. However, when the 49ers new coaching staff came in 2017, they switch to more of 4-3 hybrid look. This gave them freedom to move Buckner all around the defensive line. While Buckner had a solid rookie season the year before, his effectiveness went through the roof with the scheme adjustment in 2017 (with 88 fewer snaps). Buckner had 58 total tackles, 4 sacks, 53 total pressures, and led all interior defenders with 19 QB hits. Overall he ranked 6th amongst interior defenders, according to PFF, behind only Aaron Donald (best in the NFL), Geno Atkins (Pro Bowl), Kawann Short, Fletcher Cox (1st-team All Pro and Pro Bowl), and Ndamukong Suh.

The Jets employ a 3-4 defense but they’ve been working on mixed looks, including 4-down lineman fronts. After re-signing DL Xavier Cooper, drafting DL Nathan Shepherd and DL Foley Fatukasi, and trading for DL Henry Anderson, the Jets have not only surrounded Leonard Williams with help, but they could be hinting at more dynamic fronts. Jets’ defensive line coach Robert Nunn has been a part of plenty of 4-3 defenses in the past. That includes the Giants championship defensive line in 2012. So the Jets have the experience necessary to create their own hybrid defense. This could potentially unlock Williams’ production. It would also make it more difficult for teams to scheme against him and really the Jets defense as a whole.

We should be expecting big things from Williams in 2018. Not because of any out of the box offseason program or anything like that. But because he’s capable of so much more than he’s shown. And I say that knowing that he’s shown a lot of good! The good news is that he’s still only 23 years old (younger than Buckner). With the Jets’ improvements on defense and these potential scheme adjustments, I’m excited to see if this year, he and the Jets can unlock something undeniably special.

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