In some ways, this Jets defense is becoming Leonard Williams’ defense.
Yes, the Jets have a pair of talented young safeties in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. They spent $45 million in guaranteed money to acquire cornerback Trumaine Johnson and upgraded the linebacker position by signing Avery Williamson to a $22.5-million deal.
But Williams, 23, is everything for this defense, and on Monday, the defensive end expressed the need to move his game to an elite level.
“That’s my goal this year, not to say that it wasn’t my goal in the previous years,” he said on the first day of offseason workouts. “Every year I have goals to just be better than the previous year. I think it’s definitely time to step up and take it to the next level, and not just my play on the field [but] my leadership, how I approach my work, how much time I’m putting in outside of the mandatory hours into my craft and into my game.”
The expectations have always been high for Williams, the sixth overall pick of the 2015 draft out of USC. When he joined the Jets, he was surrounded by talented linemen in Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. Now he’s the only one left.
“I don’t think it has sunk in yet,” Williams said. “It’s pretty crazy to think about how fast the game has gone by. Just getting here as a rookie and having ‘Snacks’ and Sheldon and Mo here, and being the one guy left out of all those guys . . . I got to learn from a lot of great guys like those guys and I get to apply certain stuff.”
The 2017 season was difficult for Williams. He suffered a wrist injury toward the end of the preseason that hampered his play early on. He had only two sacks and three tackles for loss but did have 25 quarterback hits and 47 tackles.
The Jets have faith that Williams will return to Pro Bowl form. In 2016, he earned his first Pro Bowl berth with 68 total tackles, seven sacks, 19 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss.
Williams said he’s been working with assistant defensive line coach La’Roi Glover on his first step at the snap of the ball. He hopes by improving that first step, it will lead to more sacks because he’ll get off the ball quicker.
The Jets believe Williams will improve and have plans to pick up his fifth-year option by the May 3 deadline. At that point, with Williams being one of the defensive leaders, the pressure should increase.
But Williams said, “I don’t think it applies more pressure. I think the pressure has always been a factor, being a first-rounder, coming in playing with a lot of good guys already. Just playing this game in general, there’s always going to be that pressure, and it’s something we learn to deal with and get used to.”