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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Giants gamble on former Jet Leonard Williams reaching his potential

Jets defensive end Leonard Williams looks on during

Jets defensive end Leonard Williams looks on during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on July 31. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Perhaps it is in keeping with Leonard Williams’ unusually disappointing run with the Jets that he now becomes an unusual answer for the Giants in their quest to regain credibility against the headwinds of failure since their last Super Bowl run.

Williams came to the Jets in 2015 with high expectations after former general manager Mike Maccagnan, who had the sixth overall pick, suddenly found him available. It was considered a steal at the time, as the USC defensive lineman was expected to go one pick earlier to Washington. But with the Redskins instead picking offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, Williams was the can’t-miss pick.

Or so it seemed.

In four-plus seasons with the Jets, Williams has been a major disappointment. He produced only 17 sacks, none this season. He was a player who looked the part at 6-5 and 302 pounds but who underwhelmed on game days.

Williams certainly has been a serviceable defensive lineman who often drew double-team attention, the surest sign of respect among opposing offensive coordinators. But the great ones overcome those kinds of obstacles, willing themselves to the quarterback and forging their legacies through grit, determination and talent.

Williams certainly has talent, and no one ever questioned his motivation. But if a player is going to make his mark in this league, he is going to do it no matter the circumstances. It was an annual rite of passage to suggest that Williams was about to reach his potential, and also an annual lament by those around him that he failed to live up to his reputation.

Williams once had a goal of producing at least one sack per game, but he has averaged roughly a quarter of a sack in his 71 career games.

Now it’s Giants general manager Dave Gettleman’s turn to invest in Williams’ future, and he has paid a handsome price to do so. He surrendered a third-round pick in 2020 and a conditional fifth-rounder in 2021. That’s not cheap for a player who has mostly disappointed throughout his run with the Jets, but it’s obvious that Gettleman has a conviction on Williams.

As former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi always said, you never give up on talent, and Gettleman clearly is gambling that Williams can flourish in defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s system. But here’s the thing: Williams had the benefit of working under Todd Bowles, an excellent defensive coordinator before becoming the Jets’ coach. He also played for current Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who couldn’t coax a single sack out of his defensive tackle in seven games this season.

Gregg Williams defended Leonard, saying he was performing a valuable service for his defense even if the stats didn’t bear that out. It was much the same line that Bowles uttered on countless occasions during his time with the Jets.

Sometimes it comes down to a player simply not being very good, and that has been the case with Williams during his run with the Jets. If he can become a more dominant force playing alongside Dexter Lawrence, another first-round defensive tackle, then good for Williams. And good for Gettleman for investing in the former USC star.

But Williams has had ample opportunity to prove he is an elite player befitting his top-10 draft status, and he has mostly failed.

Odd, then, that the Giants and Jets, who had never consummated a trade until now, see Williams in such different shades.

For the Jets, it’s worth it for first-year GM Joe Douglas to gain some important draft capital as he reshapes his roster moving forward.

For Gettleman, Williams represents hope. And if the Giants sign him to a long-term contract extension, which will cost a significant sum to keep him off the open market, Williams will have to do much more with the Giants than he did with the Jets to make the trade worth it for his new team.

The evidence he put forth in the previous 4 1⁄2 seasons suggests the Jets got the better of the deal.

Leonard Williams was durable in his 4 1⁄2 seasons with the Jets, but he rarely got to the quarterback:

GamesSacks

2015163

2016167

2017162

2018165

201970

Totals7117

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