Brandon Williams was drafted by the Ravens in 2013, a few months after their last Super Bowl appearance. He’s spent the past eight seasons trying to get to that stage himself, and at age 32 and entering the final year of his contract, he knows the window won’t stay open forever. Will the 2021 season be his last chance?
Speaking after a minicamp workout last month, Williams deflected questions about his future, saying, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. But right now, we have a bad taste to get out of our mouths, and we plan on doing that, starting today.”
Williams was referring to the Ravens’ 17-3 divisional-round loss to the Buffalo Bills that ended last season, the third straight year in which the Ravens suffered an early postseason exit.
A third-round pick out of Missouri Southern, Williams quickly established himself as one of the league’s preeminent run stuffers. With Williams plugging the middle of the defensive front, the Ravens have had a top-five run defense in four of his eight seasons. They ranked eighth this past year, allowing 108.8 yards a game.
Williams has never put up big sack numbers, with 6.5 in eight seasons, but the 6-foot-1, 336-pounder is the type of physical mauler head coach John Harbaugh wants along the line of scrimmage. The team rewarded Williams with a five-year, $52.5 million contract as a free agent in 2017, and he earned his first Pro Bowl nod after the 2018 season.
His role at the heart of the Ravens’ defense has been made most evident by what happens when he’s not there. Since the beginning of the 2017 season, the Ravens have gone 41-14 when he played and 3-6 when he did not, and their run defense has struggled noticeably in his absence.
Williams had a career-best 53 tackles, including nine for loss, in 2015, the first of three seasons in which he played all 16 games. This past year, Williams finished with 33 tackles, including two for loss. He missed one game on the reserve/COVID-19 list and two others because of an ankle injury.
Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe meshed well in their first year together along the Ravens’ defensive front last year, but all three players are over 30 years old, and the Ravens have a few promising understudies led by second-year players Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington.
And as with everything else around this team, quarterback Lamar Jackson’s contract status looms large over the future of Williams and the rest of this group.
Jackson is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and the Ravens have picked up his fifth-year option for the 2022 season. If Jackson plays under the option, he figures to make $23 million, fully charged against the cap. Any long-term extension is likely to be the largest contract in team history and will affect what the Ravens can do financially with the rest of the roster.
The Ravens also face decisions on other 2022 free agents, including Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews, Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard, center Bradley Bozeman, Campbell, cornerback Anthony Averett and safety DeShon Elliott. Ultimately, there will only be so much money to go around.
Williams, the fifth-longest-tenured Raven, reportedly agreed to a pay cut of about $1.5 million this year, leaving him with a $6 million salary. But the restructuring did not tack on any future years, so Williams is set to become a free agent after the season.
When he met with the media last month before players scattered for their monthlong hiatus, he made clear that he feels a sense of urgency at this stage of his career.
“Definitely,” he said. “The older [you] get, you definitely want to reach the pinnacle.”
Barring an injury, he should have one more chance to do that in Baltimore. But will this be his last?
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