Leonard Williams is not going to hold out. He’s not going to gripe. He’s going to play and he’s waiting his turn.
That’s good news for the Jets when it comes to their best defensive player. They picked up the fifth-year option on the defensive end this spring for nearly $14 million, keeping him with the club through the 2019 season. And while Williams would like a larger payday down the line, he wants to earn it.
“There’s no pressure for it,” he said. “I’m not thirsty for it or anything like that. I just want to keep working hard and keep focusing on year-by-year and making myself the best possible and my team the best possible.”
Williams must do his part on the field, and that means getting more than the two sacks, 25 quarterback hits and three tackles for loss he had in 2017.
He had to overcome a bruised wrist, suffered at the end of the preseason, that limited his ability to push off offensive tackles and guards. He didn’t get a sack until Week 9 against the Bills, but when he was healthy, Williams had at least one quarterback hit for a seven-week stretch. Yet his season ended with only two quarterback hits in the last four weeks.
He’s the only player remaining from the Jets’ highly touted defensive line that once boasted Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson.
Wilkerson was cut in the spring, Richardson was traded during the 2017 preseason and Harrison was lost to the Giants in free agency before the 2017 season.
Those departures forced Williams to find his voice as a leader in the locker room and to carry things on the field.
“I respected those guys,” Williams said. “They were still the leaders of the room. When they said something, I followed. I was one of the younger guys. It’s kind of like the same way now, if me and [defensive tackle Steve McLendon] say something in the room, the younger guys follow, a different vibe.”
Todd Bowles already has noticed Williams’ voice in meetings this spring. Williams used to defer to Wilkerson to provide leadership, but now he’s doing it. “Since we’ve been back, he’s become a lot more vocal,’’ Bowles said. “Obviously, that comes with age and confidence as well, but he’s become more of a leader.”
Williams’ stature with the Jets is highlighted because the defense struggled last season. The Jets had only 28 sacks, 28th in the NFL, and the previous year wasn’t much better — 27 sacks, good for 29th.
Williams is confident that the defensive line will improve this season because he’s leading it. The additions of draft picks Nathan Shepherd (tackle, third round) and Foley Fatukasi (tackle, sixth round) along with defensive end Henry Anderson in a trade with the Colts provide depth.
“It sounds crazy, saying that it’s my fourth year already,” Williams said. “Time flew by and [I’m] not even thinking about it subconsciously. I’m just already going into the season differently. I’m more comfortable here, I’m more aware of where we’re heading and more aware of my coaches and what they want and my teammates and what they want.”
If Williams has a good season, the Jets are open to giving him a long-term contract so he can avoid entering free agency.
What they might pay Williams is uncertain. Several top 3-4 defensive ends are a good baseline for what Williams might receive. The Texans’ J.J. Watt averaged $16.6 million per season and the Steelers’ Cameron Heyward averages $10.4 million.
“It’s one of my goals to be one of the best defensive linemen, and when that comes, then I’ll get the money,” he said. “I still have some work. I’ve definitely been focusing on it and taking it day by day.”