Broncos 2020 free agent target: DL Leonard Williams

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - NOVEMBER 10: Leonard Williams #99 of the New York Giants in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 10, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - NOVEMBER 10: Leonard Williams #99 of the New York Giants in action against the New York Jets during their game at MetLife Stadium on November 10, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

The Denver Broncos might be inclined to pursue free agent defensive lineman Leonard Williams, a high-upside player who fits the defense perfectly.

The Denver Broncos, already over $60 million under the 2020 salary cap ahead of free agency (with more on the way from roster cuts) figure to be very active on the free agent market.

Of course, the Broncos have to figure out what they will do with their starting free safety Justin Simmons, who will either be tagged or get a long-term extension, but that’s really the only move at this point anyone is penciling in as a really likely one for the Broncos.

Everything else is still on the table, and I think we’ll see the Broncos be very active in pursuit of free agent defensive linemen, specifically.

Both Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris — the Broncos’ starters at either defensive end spot — are unrestricted free agents. Wolfe said that he’s not going to do for the Broncos what he did ‘last time’ which was give the team a hometown discount to keep him around.

Harris recently spoke about hoping the Broncos would pay him market value after hiring famous player agent Drew Rosenhaus.

It feels like there’s a legitimate chance both Wolfe and Harris could be gone in 2020, which means the Broncos would have restricted free agent Mike Purcell — the team’s starting nose tackle — likely back for another season along with Dre’Mont Jones to presumably fill a starting role.

If the Broncos want Jones and/or Purcell to be in a rotation of four or five guys they feel they could put on the field at any time, we may see the Broncos put an emphasis on players in free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, keeping in mind the Broncos also have DeMarcus Walker on the roster and a couple of players they are hoping to develop in Jonathan Harris and futures signing Jay-tee Tiuli.

I think the Broncos will emphasize the defensive line in free agency with at least one big-ticket move and I would not be surprised if that comes in the form of a player from outside of Denver.

One name to keep in mind? Leonard Williams, formerly of the New York Jets and New York Giants.

The Giants traded for Williams at last year’s deadline, a move that seems foolish in hindsight given they may lose him now to another team and they gave the Jets a third-round pick for him.

Williams was a really young player coming out of USC, so although he’s been in the league since 2015, he’s still only 25 years old and won’t turn 26 until June.

I personally tend to lean towards handing out big free agent contracts to younger players, though John Elway has not always gone the same direction (which is okay, especially in the case of players like Kareem Jackson), but I think this is a move the Broncos should seriously consider.

Williams is a former top draft choice and a dynamic three-down player who can play the run exceptionally well and he has untapped pass rush potential that could be absolutely devastating in Vic Fangio’s defense.

Consider the fact that last year, the Broncos got 13 sacks and somehow only 18 additional quarterback hits from Derek Wolfe and Shelby Harris combined.

Williams’ sack numbers were down in 2019 (only 0.5 sack all year) but he had five sacks in 2018 and seven sacks in 2016, so he’s proven himself capable of getting home often enough for a 3-4 defensive end.

With that said, what is really staggering is the fact that Williams’ pass rush productivity has gone severely underrated in my opinion.

Look at these numbers from the last three seasons just in terms of quarterback hits.

Shelby Harris & Derek Wolfe (combined)

  • 2019: 18 total hits
  • 2018: 13 total hits
  • 2017: 15 total hits

Leonard Williams

  • 2019: 16 hits
  • 2018: 20 hits
  • 2017: 25 hits

In five seasons, Williams has 101 total hits on the quarterback, averaging a shade over 20 per season since he’s been in the league. Von Miller had 20 hits on the QB this past year. Chris Jones of the Chiefs, maybe the top defensive lineman available in free agency, had 20 hits this past season.

Arik Armstead of the 49ers, another franchise tag candidate, had 19.

Are you getting the picture here?

Speaking of Chris Jones, with 72 hits in four years, even he’s not hitting the quarterback 20 times a season, making Williams’ numbers all the more impressive.

I contend that Williams’ ability to get to the quarterback is only going to get better the more the game slows down for him, and especially playing in the Vic Fangio defense, I think he’s the right fit for this time for the Broncos at the weakside defensive end position, and I think adding him to a defensive front with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb already would give the Broncos potentially three guys who are fully capable of getting to the QB 20 or more times in a season.

That alone makes Williams arguably my top target for the entire 2020 offseason for the Broncos when you combine his age, productivity, upside, and scheme fit as a 5T who can play all three downs and move around the formation.

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Even if it costs upwards of $15 million per season, this is a player I would pay if I’m Denver.