The thing Leonard Williams seems to like most about being with the Giants is his relationship with teammates, particularly the ones he plays with on the defensive front.
"I absolutely love playing with these guys," he said of Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson and the others who rotate through during the games. "We’ve definitely built a bond together and have a pretty solid D-line . . . I think it’s a great thing when you can build some type of chemistry like that with the guys up front. It’s been fun playing with them."
But the very thing that would seem to entice Williams to remain with the Giants — being part of that promising young core group at his position — might be the thing that winds up pushing him away. Their personalities may be meshing perfectly, but it’s hard to see their financial impacts on the team coexisting beyond this season.
The chasm between decisions being based on business and personal aspirations will be wide in their cases.
Williams and Tomlinson are due to become free agents this offseason, and the Giants might have to decide between them. With a shrinking salary cap expected for 2021, the signing of safety Logan Ryan to a three-year extension this past week, the potential for a contractual showdown with Saquon Barkley in the coming months and other needs on the roster, there might not be enough financial room for the two of them.
The Giants are heavily invested in both players. Tomlinson was a second-round pick in 2017, is one of the longest-tenured Giants players and is a defensive captain on this year’s team. He also is their Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year nominee. They received questions about his availability from other teams near the trade deadline but kept him around because they see him as a potential building block for the defense and the entire roster. His value is not as obvious as Williams’ to outsiders.
"I think Dalvin is having as good of a year as anybody on our defense," Ryan said earlier this month. "He’s the nose guard getting double-teamed every play, but he’s taking up two blocks, causing disruption, getting interior push . . . Leonard’s having a great year statistically, but [Tomlinson] is having a better year for our team and what we ask him to do."
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham also raved about Tomlinson recently.
"I’ve known him since he was a rookie, and I really have a love for this guy," Graham said. "Where that D-line is going right as they go through this [season] is a direct correlation to his leadership and what he does on that field, regardless of statistics or what have you."
Williams arrived last year after a trade with the Jets. Unable to agree to a long-term deal last offseason, the Giants used the franchise tag to keep him on the team for 2020. He’s rewarded that one-year, $16.1 million agreement with one of his best seasons ever, posting a career-high 8.5 sacks along with 24 quarterback hits through 14 games. Only Aaron Donald (12.5 sacks and 25 QB hits) has more of either among NFL defensive linemen this year.
Those numbers made Williams a potential Pro Bowler — he seemed miffed at being snubbed for that honor when he spoke this past week — but they also make him a high-priced commodity. If he reaches free agency, the Giants may not be able to compete with offers from other teams.
They could use the franchise tag a second time on Williams, or use it on Tomlinson for a first time, but that likely would be too cost-prohibitive.
"So far, there haven’t been any conversations that I know of," Williams said of early negotiations with the Giants. "I think I just have to focus on that when it comes around. I still have two more games to play, and then a while with the offseason until anything like that plays out. I don’t know, I really haven’t been thinking about any contract stuff, to be honest."
The play of the defensive line has been one of the reasons the Giants have had the success they have found this season. Williams, Tomlinson and Lawrence have a combined 15 of the team’s 34 total sacks and have been instrumental in the rushing defense's ranking of sixth in the NFL.
Lawrence is two years into his rookie contract, and the Giants won’t have to worry about his free agency until after the 2023 season. The two other pieces to that unit, though, are in line for a big payday.
Williams is excited by that but also aware that it could mean the end of his tenure with the Giants.
"I’ve been enjoying my time here so far," he said. "I love the guys on this team. I love playing with these guys. I’ve built a relationship with a lot of the players on this team. I love the direction of where it’s going with this new coaching staff. I’ve been proud to be a Giant for however long it’s been.
"If it ends this year, then it ends this year," he added. "But either way, I’ve been happy to wear these colors and play this season. It’s been fun being a part of this defense and this team."