A Leonard Williams long-term deal with Giants never had a chance

Zeke or Saquon: Who is the better RB? (2:06)

Marcus Spears fires back at Max Kellerman about why Ezekiel Elliott is a better running back than Saquon Barkley. (2:06)

The potential that comes from defensive lineman Leonard Williams' draft status as a 2015 first-round pick and early success as a Pro Bowler in his second season will eventually wear off.

Williams is entering his sixth, and most important, professional season. There is a lot at stake for the 26-year-old who finished last season with 42 tackles (the second-lowest of his career) and half a sack in 15 games with the Giants and New York Jets. He needs to play well if he intends to land the generational wealth payday he desires. The New York Giants need him to play well in order for their defense to have a chance and for their new coaching staff to buy into wanting him around long-term at such a hefty salary.

The deadline for Williams to sign a long-term deal passed Wednesday, and that leaves the Giants amicably married to their franchise tagged player for another year, and forbidden by rules to negotiate a long-term deal until after the 2020 season.

It's a deal that works for both sides. The new coaching staff gets a chance to see how the versatile lineman fits and plays in defensive coordinator Patrick Graham's multiple system, and Williams gets another chance to prove he's as good as general manager Dave Gettleman believed when he traded third and fifth-round picks with the Jets for his services.

It's not hard to argue that at this point Williams is fortunate to be playing on the franchise tag, which for a defensive tackle equates to $16.126 million for one season. The Jets saw firsthand what he provided for 4 1/2 seasons, and in turn, had no intention of paying him.

An NFL executive and coach recently described Williams as a "solid" player. Usually solid isn't rewarded by being the highest-paid player on a team. But that isn't the case in this unique situation.

"[The Giants] painted themselves into a corner with the acquisition [of Williams] in the first place," the executive said. "Is there upside as a rusher? You can argue that. But they are overpaying him."

Williams is now penciled in as the highest-paid Giant for the 2020 season, and his salary could increase to $17.8 million if he wins a grievance to be classified as a defensive end instead of a defensive tackle.

Really, there was never a chance that Williams and the Giants would come to terms on a long-term deal once the franchise tag designation was utilized back in March. With the tag, the Giants had put a price on Williams that was already beyond his actual worth.

As one agent well-versed with the franchise tag explained, it sabotaged any chance for a potential long-term deal. The way an agent looks at the franchise number is as his client's floor. In this case, the floor was also likely the Giants' ceiling.

"They've already set themselves up for what he's worth," the agent said. "Moving forward, he's not going to take anything less than $16 million per year."

With Williams believing he deserves the defensive end franchise tag, that puts his demands in the $18 million-per-year range. Only three interior defensive linemen -- Aaron Donald, Chris Jones and DeForest Buckner -- make at least $18 million per season, and Williams doesn't have anywhere near the same play-making impact.

Donald has 33.0 sacks the past two seasons; Jones has 24.5 and Bucker 19.5. Williams' 5.5 pales in comparison, and his 17.5 sacks over his first five seasons puts him in an entirely different classification of player.

If Williams has any chance at that top-level money, he must have that breakout year in his sixth professional season. Otherwise, the league will come to the realization that Williams is what he is -- a nice player, strong against the run, a decent quarterback disruptor but not a dynamic playmaker or someone who should be compensated at the top of the defensive linemen pay scale.

It's not to say Williams isn't a useful player -- he absolutely is. The Giants allowed 4.01 rushing yards per attempt last season before the trade for Williams. They allowed 3.70 yards after.

Williams also had a respectable 20 quarterback pressures in his eight games with the Giants, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That was tied for 25th among all defensive linemen. But he had 0.5 sacks and the Giants weren't an appreciably better defense or team overall with him on their roster.

Williams was solid but unspectacular, probably a fair description of his career to date. Gettleman wanted to re-sign him. That was his intention at the time of the trade and after the season.

"We gave up a three and a five [draft picks]. Our goal is to sign him long-term," Gettleman told a reporter with the Giants' website after the midseason trade. "He's only 25 years old. And obviously talented. He's a piece you can build around."

Only the Giants never had leverage given the details of the trade. They exchanged assets midway through a lost season for an impending free agent. And that put the ball in Williams' court.

It would have made no sense to let Williams walk this offseason. The Giants were already pot-committed.

Now, it's on Williams to hold up his end of the bargain with a big season.