The Ravens on Wednesday finalized a five-year, $70 million deal with free agent Marcus Williams, adding a playmaking safety to a talented secondary in the team’s first big offseason acquisition.
Williams’ contract is worth $14 million annually, the seventh most among NFL safeties, and includes $37 million guaranteed, according to ESPN, which first reported the agreement Tuesday.
“Words can’t describe the way I’m feeling!!! I’m so grateful!! I can’t wait to get to work,” Williams, 25, wrote in a tweet in which he tagged the Ravens’ team account.
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Williams has been one of the NFL’s best safeties since arriving in New Orleans in 2017. Over five seasons with the Saints, he had 15 interceptions and 38 passes defended and never missed more than two games in a season. He’s one of six players with at least two interceptions over each of the past five years.
According to Pro Football Focus, Williams ranks in the 94th percentile among all safeties in coverage grade since 2017. The analytics site named the former second-round pick a second-team All-Pro last season after he allowed a 54.2 passer rating in primary coverage, giving up one touchdown and recording two interceptions.
Safety wasn’t considered a glaring need for the Ravens, who will bring back veteran leader Chuck Clark and the versatile Brandon Stephens next season. The team entered free agency with about $16 million in salary cap space and holes along the offensive and defensive lines.
But in a 2021 season where injuries decimated their secondary, the Ravens finished last in the NFL in pass defense (278.9 yards allowed per game), 29th in interception rate (1.4%) and 27th in passer rating (99.4). Their nine interceptions were the second fewest in franchise history and their 31 touchdowns allowed were the most.
“I would say, just in general, especially on the back end, our inability this year to create turnovers was probably an issue for us,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said at his season-ending news conference last month. “I would love to see us make the play this year coming up — intercept more passes, cause more fumbles, be more disruptive. So if the opportunity presents itself and we see a dynamic corner or a dynamic safety, of course, that would be something that would be attractive to us.
“When you play these teams — when you play the Steelers, when you play the Browns, when you play the Bengals — twice a year and you see their skill players, it becomes imperative that we always have a strong back end, with good players and depth, as well.”
With cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters expected to return from season-ending pectoral and knee injuries, respectively, by training camp, new Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will have one of the NFL’s most talented secondaries in 2022.
In Williams, the Ravens should have their best center-field ball hawk since Ed Reed was in his All-Pro prime. According to Sports Info Solutions, Williams was targeted just twice on 264 coverage snaps while lining up as a safety in Cover 1 (one deep safety) and Cover 3 (three deep safeties) zone shells last season. In 2020, he was targeted just twice in his 216 snaps in those coverages.
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When opposing quarterbacks have gone after Williams, he’s typically found his way to the ball. He’s defended a pass or recorded an interception on an NFL-high 27.6% of his targets since 2017, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Williams’ arrival should limit the Ravens’ big-play struggles — the defense allowed 29 completions of at least 30 yards last season, tied for the most in the NFL — and allow Clark to align closer to the line of scrimmage, where he broke out while playing alongside Earl Thomas in 2019. Stephens, who saw significant time as a box safety, deep safety and slot defender in his rookie season, could be used as a chess piece in Macdonald’s defense.
“Signing of the off-season!!” Saints inside linebacker Demario Davis tweeted after Williams’ deal was reported.
Williams’ career started inauspiciously. His missed tackle on wide receiver Stefon Diggs in a 2017 NFC divisional-round playoff game against Minnesota led to a last-second Vikings win, in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle.” But Williams rarely left the field over his first four seasons, and he played under the franchise tag last season.
With the Saints’ salary cap tied up in other players, Williams hit free agency for the first time in his career. As arguably the top safety available, he reportedly received serious interest from the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. Instead, he signed with the Ravens, joining a franchise accustomed to investing in the secondary. Over the past three seasons, the Ravens have ranked among the NFL’s top six teams in defensive back spending, according to salary cap website Spotrac.
Williams’ salary cap hit in 2022 is unclear, but the Ravens will continue to monitor the free-agent market this week. As of Tuesday night, none of their top free agents, including center Bradley Bozeman and defensive lineman Calais Campbell, had signed deals elsewhere. The team also has the flexibility to create more cap space, if necessary.
The Ravens’ first deal of the offseason was a big one, bolstering their secondary ahead of an AFC race teeming with elite quarterback play. But with holes to fill and money to spend, it will be far from their last.