Ravens center/guard Wally Williams agreed last night to a five-year contract with the New Orleans Saints worth $18.5 million, which includes a record signing bonus for an offensive lineman of $7 million, according to his agent, Tom Condon.
Dallas Cowboys All-Pro offensive tackle Larry Allen had the previous high signing bonus for established linemen in the league at $6.1 million, Condon said. Williams will make an average of $3.7 million a season, the highest average of any NFL guard or center.
Williams, one of the team's most versatile offensive linemen, canceled a visit to St. Louis yesterday after closing the Saints deal.
Williams is one of two Ravens starting offensive linemen who are unrestricted free agents. The other is right tackle Orlando Brown, who visited the Washington Redskins and New York Jets on Friday, according to Condon, and reportedly has declared the Redskins the No. 1 team on his list.
Brown also reportedly has St. Louis, Kansas City and Cleveland on his list of prospective teams. The Saints were the first and only team Williams visited.
"I wasn't here to weigh options, to hold one team against another, or one salary against another," Williams said from his New Orleans hotel. "I'm here to play football.
"I'm in a situation where I like the people around me and I like what everybody is trying to do here. I was looking for a team that was dedicated to winning, has a family-type atmosphere and everybody wants to work together.
"It wasn't a thing where I was searching for a certain city to be in or anything else. I sat down with [coach] Mike Ditka and talked with him for four hours and that was it."
Williams, however, said that the Ravens' failure to sign him to a long-term contract a year ago played a part in his decision.
"I have nothing against the Ravens," Williams said. "Actually, when they designated me the franchise player last year, it was an honor. I never thought I would reach that milestone coming out of college as a free agent. But when they didn't eventually give me the deal, it showed they weren't interested.
"They signed Ray Lewis to a new deal and they gave Jermaine Lewis a new contract. Those were the guys, along with Jonathan Ogden, they wanted to keep and I don't blame them," Williams said. "But the Ravens had no intention of re-signing me. You think the Ravens were going to give me $7 million up front?"
Williams' deal almost ensures that the 6-foot-7, 350-pound Brown, also a six-year veteran, will not return to the Ravens and will also receive a record deal. The Ravens never submitted offers to Condon, the agent for both Brown and Williams.
The Ravens publicly stated they wanted both players to return, but neither Brown nor Williams had overly impressive seasons a year ago. Brown also has been bothered by an ankle injury the last three years.
According to a team source, the Ravens would never have come close to offering Williams the kind of contract he agreed to last night. The source said the Ravens will not pay that kind of money to Brown, either.
"I actually thought the Ravens would put the franchise tag on Orlando," Williams said. "The Ravens are going to have to come up with the same kind of paper [money] that I got to bring Orlando back and I don't think that's going to happen. Orlando is gone."
Ravens coach Brian Billick said: "Wally is a fine young man and I'm really thrilled for him and the security he has gotten for his family. But after looking at the film from a year ago and the proven market, we cannot give that kind of money to these kind of players with the kind of needs we have to address."
Billick even offered a guarantee.
"We'll be better in the offensive line this year than last year because of the focus of athletes we're going to bring in here," he said. "We've got a couple of players in mind. They are not great players, but solid guys, and you can win with those kind of players in this league as long as they're focused. We can get two or three quality offensive linemen for the money that was put out for Wally."
Williams will play left guard for the Saints. Last season he held out four weeks of training camp after the team failed to sign him to a long-term deal and then put the franchise tag on him that guaranteed Williams a one year salary of $3.062 million. Williams started the first seven games at left guard and moved to center for the next six.
"He is a proven outstanding player in the league," Ditka said. "He can play in more than one position, but we don't want that. We want to solidify the left side of the line."
Williams will get a chance to play his former teammates this season when the Saints come to Baltimore. By then, he expects to be a much better player.
"I've been bounced around from left guard, right guard and center throughout my career," Williams said. "All I wanted was the opportunity to come in and solidify a position and perfect it. I've played hard every position I've been in, but given an opportunity to come here and perfect one position, well, I think I can take my skills to the next level.
"It will be a little strange playing in Baltimore next season, but you know how it goes. They introduce you, the crowd boos you and then you go out and smack some people and it becomes just another game."
Pub Date: 2/14/99