As many of his Ravens’ teammates packed up their belongings the day after the 2016 season ended, nose tackle Brandon Williams left his corner locker untouched. He even left behind the suit he wore on the team’s final road trip.
He knew there was a chance his time with the Ravens was over, but he wasn’t ready to confront that reality back in early January.
“I figured I would kind of try to leave hints and kind of speak it into existence and keep everything there so they know I’m going to be there,” Williams said Monday while flanked by Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh. “It was a crazy experience. I was anxious, not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing where I am going to be. I was hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.”
A little over three months after he wondered if he was walking out of the Under Armour Performance Center for the final time, Williams received a call from Newsome late last Thursday night that left both men battling a variety of emotions.
The two sides had just agreed to a five-year, $52.5 million deal that included $27.5 million in guaranteed money and made Williams, a player the Ravens discovered at the Senior Bowl and drafted in the third round in 2013 out of Division II Missouri Southern State, the highest-paid nose tackle in NFL history.
“The emotions that he had on that phone, the excitement, how happy he was, it was just something that my wife said, ‘You are on a high!’ And I was,” Newsome said Monday. “Just talking with Brandon and how he felt, I could just feel it through the phone. The other part of that is the whole building. When everyone knew that he had agreed to the contract, I think the whole building was lifted up.”
Williams, 28, officially signed his contract Monday morning after what he described as an emotional weekend during which he had been reduced to tears several times.
“First off, I want to say that I’m glad to be home,” Williams said. “I’m glad to be with Baltimore. I told coach Harbaugh this: When it got down to it, I kind of just could not see myself in any other color but purple and black.”
At an afternoon news conference at the team facility, Williams got choked up as he discussed his humble beginnings and how they shaped him. The St. Louis native was homeless for a period of time as a kid. Later, the hulking defensive lineman occupied a job carrying porta potties.
“I just have been reminiscing, looking at my kids, seeing that they never have to go through what I went through growing up,” Williams said. “Growing up, it was tough. I had everything I needed, not everything I wanted. But at the same time, there were definitely some big-time lows growing up.”
Williams paid tribute to his fiancee, Alyssa, who attended the news conference, and his mother Shelly, who he called his “hero.” He also expressed gratitude to owner Steve Bisciotti, Newsome, Harbaugh and late Ravens defensive line coach Clarence Brooks.
Williams expressed hope that he spends his whole career with the Ravens.
“Growing up looking at Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti [Ngata], Marshal [Yanda], Jonathan Ogden — seeing the impact that they have in this community, in the city and on this team — it just spoke volumes. So, I want to be just like that,” Williams said. “I want to be like the Ray Lewises or the Terrell Suggses or the Haloti Ngatas of the team and of the city — to give back, and even after I’m done with the game, I can still be in Baltimore and have an impact in the community.”
The Ravens had made re-signing Williams one of their offseason priorities. The team’s top decision makers had started discussing what it would take to retain one of the top interior defensive linemen on the market when they met at Bisciotti’s Jupiter, Fla. home in January.
After getting a better idea of the free agent market and Williams’ price tag, Newsome, Harbaugh, team president Dick Cass and assistant general manager Eric DeCosta participated in a conference call with Bisciotti last Thursday morning, hours before the free-agent market officially opened.
Newsome and Bisciotti spoke later that night and the owner’s message was, as Newsome recalled, “Do what you have to do to get the deal done.” The two sides then agreed to a deal in short order, continuing the Ravens’ tradition of signing their core defensive players to second contracts.
The Ravens, though, certainly paid a significant price. Williams’ $27.5 million in guaranteed money comfortably surpassed the previous high deal for a nose tackle, which was the five-year, $46.25 million pact ($24 million guaranteed) that the New York Giants signed Damon Harrison to last March.
There are obvious questions about the wisdom of investing that amount of money in a player who is primarily a run stuffer —Williams has just 4 ½ sacks over four NFL seasons — but the Ravens’ main defensive focus has always been to stop the run. Williams, whose 51 tackles last season were the third most among NFL nose tackles, regularly absorbs double teams and keeps blockers off other Ravens’ defenders.
Since the 6-foot-1, 340-pound player became a full-time starter in 2014 after serving a one-year apprenticeship under Ngata, the Ravens have ranked third, 10th and fifth against the run. Williams has thrived in the same role that Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Kelly Gregg and Ngata once occupied for the Ravens.
“Being strong down the middle is probably important in every single sport,” Harbaugh said. “When the Ravens have been at their best, historically, they have been strong down the middle on both sides of the ball, but especially on defense. When you are strong down the middle right at the front point in your defense, it gives you a chance to build from there, and that is the idea here with Brandon.
“... It’s a big piece that is filled — literally and figuratively, a really big piece, and really the main piece for our defense to start with. Now we have to work our way out to the positions that we’ve talked about.”
NOTE: The Ravens withdrew the $1.79 million original-round tenders to defensive backs Marqueston Huff and Jumal Rolle, making both players free agents. The Ravens, who opened up a little more than $3 million of salary cap space with the moves, could re-sign both players, but it probably would be at a reduced rate.