Tuesday, June 15, 2021
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Giants lock up Leonard Williams long-term, free up cap space for other free agents

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NEW YORK — Big Blue and The Big Cat finally have a deal.

Leonard Williams and the Giants agreed on Tuesday to a three-year, $63 million contract extension with $45 million fully guaranteed, a source told the New York Daily News.

The deal locks up the Giants’ top pass rusher, and it reduces his 2021 salary cap hit to $11 million, according to a source, clearing immediate cap space for the team to spend elsewhere.

Both were necessities and priorities for the Giants, who wanted to secure a key player and needed more money to spend in free agency.

Williams, 26, gets a $21 million average annual salary. Classifying him as an interior lineman, that ties him with the Colts’ DeForest Buckner for second in the league in average annual value behind only Rams four-time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald ($22.5 million).

Classifying Williams as a defensive end ties him for fourth in the league with the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence ($21 million) behind only the Chargers’ Joey Bosa ($27 million), the Browns’ Myles Garrett ($25 million) and the Bears’ Khalil Mack ($23.5 million).

Williams, acquired in a fall 2019 deadline trade from the Jets, had a career year in his first full season with the Giants.

The former sixth overall pick racked up a career-high 11.5 sacks and 62 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus, both ranked No. 7 in the NFL.

He added 30 QB hits and 57 tackles, including 14 tackles for loss. And he capped the season with a career-high three sacks in a Week 17 win over the Dallas Cowboys, which earned him the NFC’s defensive player of the week award entering his pivotal offseason.

Williams played the 2020 season on the $16.126 million non-exclusive franchise tag after the Giants failed to reach a long-term deal with him last spring.

The team placed the tag on him again last week, this time for a $19.35 million tender, but with the intention of working out a long-term contract the entire time.

Williams’ agents used their ample leverage, however, to get a deal done closer to the Giants’ deadline of 3:59 p.m. Wednesday.

NFL teams have to be cap compliant by that time. So while the Giants could have twisted themselves to get under the cap with that enormous $19 million salary, realistically they needed Williams on a long-term deal to use bonus money and extra years to lower his 2021 hit.

While they went toe-to-toe in the Williams negotiations, edge rushers flew off the top of the free-agent market, with the Giants reportedly striking out on the Rams’ Leonard Floyd.

Now that assistant GM Kevin Abrams got the Williams deal done, the Giants have a clearer idea of exactly what money they have to spend to upgrade the rest of their roster at positions such as receiver, corner, edge, linebacker, returner and offensive line.

In fact, the second that Williams’ deal became public, the Giants also agreed to terms with former Bengals receiver John Ross, 25, on a reported one-year, $2.5 million deal that includes $1 million guaranteed, per NFL Network.

Dave Gettleman, on one hand, finds some validation in Williams’ production after the GM took a lot of heat for trading a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 fifth for Williams in October 2019.

On the other hand, Gettleman made that trade trying to jump start his 2-6 Giants in a season that eventually saw head coach Pat Shurmur fired. And then, by failing to get Williams signed last year, the player’s cost went up.

These are the kinds of missteps that can squeeze a salary cap so the Giants can’t afford to retain homegrown talent like defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson — even though the competition was just a two-year, $22 million deal from the Minnesota Vikings.

Granted, the NFL’s salary cap shrinking by $15.7 million due to pandemic shortfalls didn’t help, either.

But the Giants also failed to retain Tomlinson when they chose to spread their money around on depth players like RB Devontae Booker (max $2.75 million), DT Austin Johnson ($3 million), TE Levine Toilolo ($1.6 million restructure), WR C.J. Board (TBD minimal salary) and OT Nate Solder (TBD pay cut).

The roster’s depth is an issue and needs addressing, but doing so at the cost of a durable and reliable Giants second-round pick like Tomlinson is tough to swallow.

The Giants’ negotiations with Williams’ camp were difficult in part because of the discrepancies between Williams’ tag salary and this spring’s free agent pass rush market — and also because of how Williams defines his position and value.

The franchise tag is $13.88 million this year for defensive tackles and $16 million for defensive ends. The top eight free agent edge rushers averaged a maximum of $15 million per year on their new deals agreed to Monday.

But Williams’ tag salary as a defensive tackle this year was $19.35 million, as 120% of last year’s $16.126 million tag. That tag could have been $21.34 million if he’d won two outstanding grievances with the NFL players’ union asking to be classified as a defensive end, not a tackle.

And while the top five NFL tackle salaries average $19.6 million, the top five defensive ends average $22.3 million per year. And since Williams is the Giants’ best pass rusher, he believed he should be paid and classified as that.

Williams always has had a strong case in his grievances about position classification, which applies to both his fifth-year option salary with the Jets and Giants in 2019 and his franchise tag with the Giants in 2020.

Williams was drafted as a defensive end out of USC in 2015. He made the Pro Bowl with the Jets as a defensive end in 2016. And he often has played defensive end for James Bettcher and Pat Graham in the Giants’ 3-4 and multiple front schemes the past season and a half.

The Giants knew Williams would cost a lot to sign long-term, but the difference between the $13.88 million defensive tackle tag and that $22.3 million average salary for the NFL’s top five ends provides a good idea of the wide wiggle room that existed in these talks.

Williams’ grievances never were officially filed by the NFLPA, but they also hung over the negotiations as a potential threat of additional leverage. And walking the Giants closer to Wednesday’s cap deadline held the franchise’s feet to the fire.

Thankfully, the deal is done — finally.

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