In the end, the Jets still might win the Leonard Williams trade from last year, especially if promising rookie safety Ashtyn Davis becomes as impactful a player as the one he replaced, Jamal Adams. But say this much for the deal that initially looked entirely lopsided: Williams is justifying the belief Giants general manager Dave Gettleman had in him.
Williams has been one of the most effective players on a defense that has been better than expected. And while we’d never pronounce this group on a level with the ’85 Bears, it has been good enough to keep the Giants competitive through nearly every game and a big reason they stand a fighting chance to win the NFC East title.
After being taken with the sixth overall pick in 2015, Williams was a major disappointment through most of his career with the Jets. Billed as a dominant defensive lineman who could disrupt games with his unique skill set as a quality pass rusher and run stopper, he simply never panned out.
In 71 games with the Jets, he had only 17 sacks, but he has blossomed in his first full season under Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. In 10 games, he has five sacks and seven tackles for loss, putting him on a pace for career highs.
Williams seems to have benefited from a switch to playing mostly tackle in the Giants’ 4-3 scheme; he was a defensive end in the Jets’ 3-4 alignment. But he also has been helped by quality play in the defensive backfield, which makes life easier for any pass rusher.
"Sometimes a lot of stuff plays a part," Williams said. "We have a good secondary that can help the quarterback hold the ball for that split-second longer when we have corners plastering their guys."
Graham also has used Williams in a variety of different ways, which makes him less predictable than he was with the Jets. The intricacies of Graham’s blitzes also have been a factor.
"We have a lot of different blitzes that help out," Williams said. "We’re moving around. I’m playing three technique, I’m playing five technique, I’m playing outside, moving all around. I think a lot of that stuff goes into it. [Defensive line coach Sean Spencer] and Coach Pat have been doing a good job coaching."
The Giants have even had Williams play from a standing position — something he’d never done with the Jets — although he much prefers playing with his hand in the dirt, as players like to call a three-point stance.
"I don’t prefer to stand up," he said. "I think it just depends on what type of look I’m getting from the offense. It’s just situational football."
Graham has emphasized a better first step with Williams, and it’s paying off in a big way.
"The biggest thing for Leo was let’s hit it quick, man, let’s go, get to the quarterback," Graham said. "Just do that."
Even when he wasn’t putting up solid sack numbers with the Jets, Todd Bowles and Gregg Williams routinely praised his effort and consistency. The same goes for Joe Judge, who is getting the benefit of increased production from the 26-year-old.
"I think this guy has done a really good job with everything we’ve asked him to do," Judge said. "He’s playing good, fundamental technique and good, sound execution within the schemes. He’s using his hands very well to get off blocks, he plays with a high motor. He’s really using his pass rush moves and his counters off it to get him to the ball."
Now comes the hard part — the part that will go a long way toward determining whether the trade was worth it.
Gettleman couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Williams, so he used the franchise tag in 2020, valued at $16.1 million. Williams will be a free agent next year, so if the Giants lose him to another team, they’ll have only 1 ½ seasons to show for a deal in which they gave up the third-rounder this year and a fifth-rounder in 2021. And i
f Williams’ production keeps improving, the price tag will only go higher.
But first things first. Williams can help his team — and himself — with more good play down the stretch.
"This is definitely the time where you have to play some of your best football," he said.
He’s right about that. And if he continues to play at this level, he’ll create the kind of problem the Giants don’t mind addressing. One they won’t mind paying for to make the trade worth it.