Safety Marcus Williams has quietly emerged as a key to Saints' future

Marcus Williams and the Saints have until July 15 to reach a long-term extension or the safety becomes a free agent in 2022. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive end Cameron Jordan quickly rejected the premise when asked if the New Orleans Saints' roster departures might usher in a new phase.

“Who’s starting over?” said Jordan, who started rattling off the defensive leaders he expects to help guide New Orleans through life after Drew Brees.

The first three names Jordan mentioned: Linebacker Demario Davis, who was a first-team All-Pro in 2019 and a second-team All-Pro in 2020. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore, a three-time Pro Bowler. And safety Marcus Williams.

“[We’ve] got young Marcus,” said Jordan, who started joking about whether it’s still OK to call Williams "young" heading into his fifth season. “Young? Old-young? He’s heading into Year 5, but he’s like 22.”

Actually, Williams is 24 -- but Jordan’s point is valid. Williams is still a young, ascending player who hasn’t received the same level of recognition as defensive stalwarts like Jordan, Davis and Lattimore. But he is absolutely valued inside the Saints organization after locking down the starting free safety job ever since he was drafted in the second round out of Utah in 2017.

The Saints proved how much Williams means to them by placing the franchise tag on him in March with a one-year price tag of $10.612 million -- despite their severe salary-cap constraints. And as they showed again last week by making Ryan Ramczyk the highest-paid right tackle in NFL history, the Saints will find the cap space for their core players.

Williams and the team have until July 15 to reach a long-term contract extension, or else he will play this season under the tag and become a free agent again next year. To get that done, New Orleans might have to approach nearly $14 million per year (the current threshold for the league's six highest-paid safeties). But the Saints have already made it clear they didn’t want to risk letting him out of the building.

Williams is important to the long-term future of a secondary that is facing a bit of a transition period.

The Saints released No. 2 cornerback Janoris Jenkins this offseason. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is 33 and heading into the final year of his contract. And Lattimore is heading into the final year of his deal, with New Orleans needing to decide whether to commit nearly $20 million per year to keep him long term.

“I feel like I take a step forward every single day, and every time I stepped on the field last year I felt like I took a step forward.” Williams said when asked if he felt like he took one last season. “And just with being a leader and being around my teammates and learning from other guys and having guys learning from me, it was a big step forward. Especially being in Year 4, it was a big step, I feel.”

Williams has 13 career interceptions in the regular season and one more in the playoffs. Combined, those 14 picks tie him for third among NFL safeties over the past four years. Pro Football Focus rated him as the league’s seventh-best safety in 2020 and fourth best in 2019.

More importantly, Williams has been a key to the Saints’ overall turnaround on defense. Dating back to Week 3 of his rookie season, New Orleans ranks top five in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed -- with the league’s best regular-season record over that span.

Unfortunately for Williams, he may always be best known for his missed tackle against Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs in the final seconds of the Saints’ “Minneapolis Miracle” playoff loss during his rookie season.

But the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder made a noticeable improvement in his tackling last season and showed authority on several big plays while separating receivers from the ball.

“He was a more physical player; he took better angles to the football. I like him a lot,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen, who added that Williams is the type of “rangy post defender” that new Saints secondary coach Kris Richard relied upon for so many years with Earl Thomas in Seattle.

Williams, who entered the NFL with a “ball hawk” reputation, readily acknowledged last year that improving his tackling was a big focus. But he disagreed with the notion that he played with more authority.

“I just make plays on the ball; it’s just something I do. It’s not like I couldn’t do it,” Williams said. “You could look back on past years’ film and see I was doing it then. Maybe you were a little more dialed in [and looking for it specifically]. But it’s something I’ve been always doing since I’ve been playing DB, and it’s something I continue to get better at.

“I mean, it’s never going to be perfect, but I always work to be a perfectionist in everything I do.”

Richard replaced former Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn, who is now the Detroit Lions’ defensive coordinator. Williams hasn’t worked with Richard much yet since the Saints didn’t hold formal OTA and minicamp practices this offseason. But he said he immediately recognized Richard’s passion and desire to work.

Williams also expressed confidence that New Orleans’ secondary will be able to move forward with a new starting cornerback to replace Janoris Jenkins.

“We always have that next-man-up mentality,” Williams said. “So whoever comes in, or if it’s a guy that’s already been here, we’re already ready to mold together and get that culture back up and running and figure out what our identity for the year is going to be. And we just know that we’re going to have a good coach to help us bring everybody together.”

It also helps to have a safety net like Williams manning the back end.