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Barry Hirstius

Is “Ball Hawk” Saints Rookie the Defense’s Missing Piece?

Marcus Williams - Ballhawk

21. That's the number of total "takeaways" that the Saints defense recorded last season, which ranked them 23rd overall out of the NFL's 32 teams.

By comparison, that was 12 less than the Kansas City Chiefs; who led the League in total takeaways in 2016 with a total of 33 of them.

As we all know, the NFL's giveaway / takeaway stat is one of the most scrutinized in all of Pro Football, and it's usually indicative of a team's ultimate success or failure.

Which is exactly why in 2017, the addition of a young man who seemingly has a 'knack' for making interceptions and forcing fumbles with jarring hits in the defensive secondary, just might be the "missing puzzle piece" that the Saints defense has been lacking for the past several NFL seasons.

That rookie of course is this year's 2nd Round pick by New Orleans in the recently-completed 2017 NFL Draft: former University of Utah star free safety Marcus Williams.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Yesterday during the open portion to the Media for the final practice of Round 2 of the Saints off-season OTA's, Williams showed everyone watching just exactly why the Saints somewhat surprisingly but quickly snatched him up with the 42nd overall pick.

First, with Drew Brees under center taking the snaps at QB for the Saints offense, Williams "blanketed" the sideline where 3rd year veteran WR Brandon Coleman was running a route, before he timed his jump as the pass was going into Coleman's hands and then knocked it away to the ground.

Then just a few plays later with Brees once again under center, Williams denied 4th year veteran WR Corey Fuller on what's known as a curl route, by quickly diagnosing the play and then darting in once again to break up the pass attempt.

It was a dazzling display of the skill set that Williams possesses, and was evidence of exactly why the Saints took Williams "early" when many had projected him as a 3rd and even a 4th Round pick in some Draft projections.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Color Brees among those who came away very impressed with the dynamic young rookie's abilities.

“There’s an adjustment there, but he doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed,” Brees told the assembled throng of media gathered at his post-practice press conference yesterday.

“He seems to be a guy who wants to be making all the right calls, be in the right position. He’s been in some positions to make plays on the ball, and he’s been able to make them. I’ve been impressed with him thus far.”

In his outstanding article published yesterday on Williams, New Orleans Advocate beat writer / analyst Nick Underhill made the observation that perhaps Williams has been able to "get up to speed" a little bit quicker than most rookie NFL safeties, since he played 'single high' coverage while at Utah --- which isn't common at the collegiate level.

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Underhill says that Williams is accustomed to reading quarterbacks and being responsible for the whole field, whereas had he played in a different scheme in college, he’d STILL be learning those things right now.

To be sure, Williams proved during his career in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah, that he is more than capable of making 'big plays' in the secondary at the professional level.

Williams recorded 5 interceptions both as a junior (2015) and a senior (2016) in each of the past two seasons; serving as proof that he can bring to the Saints defense what former veteran Jairus Byrd could not do any longer: the "ball skills" which most top-caliber DB's possess, that are essential to creating much-needed turnovers in the NFL.

"The thing about this kid is, look, he's a ballhawk," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told reporters in a press conference with local media after the pick of Williams was made following Day 2 of the Draft. "I think someday that he could be the quarterback of the defense in the back end."

Williams is poised to give the Saints secondary something that it has lacked for some time: which is an ATTITUDE and a certain "swagger" that he definitely appears to bring to the table on any given play.

To use an 'old school' term (because old guys like me use them), Williams isn't afraid to "lay the wood" on a receiver or a tight end that comes into his area of responsibility.

Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

There are times when he might have 'whiffed' at making a tackle here or there in his days at Utah, but there isn't any doubt whatsoever that he’s a hard hitter --- so much so that whenever he gets a clean shot at the ball-carrier, it's going to end up on the "highlight reel" of the ESPN 10 p.m. Eastern Sports Center broadcast.

With Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell already in the secondary at safety, and returning veterans Delvin Breaux, PJ Williams and #1 pick Marshon Lattimore at the CB spots, adding a player of Williams' caliber to the 3-safety looks that the Saints often employ in their defensive scheme potentially makes them one of the most improved defensive secondaries in the NFC South.

Underhill noted yesterday that Williams has been working with the 1st-team defense in OTA's, which is notable because although it might not 'mean' anything (since the coaching staff likes to rotate people in with different groups during summer practices), it still is something that stands out --- given that other members of the rookie class haven’t gotten the same treatment during the two sessions open to the media.

Let's just say this much about Williams: regardless of whether he lines up with the 1st team unit defense throughout the remainder of the Summer or not, make no mistake --- he'll be entrenched as a starter and will be "hunting heads" by November.

At this point, there's isn't any other reason besides a "freak" injury (God forbid) that would prevent him from doing otherwise.

The Saints have themselves a PLAYER on their hands with the selection of  Marcus Williams.

And he may just be the "missing piece" to the Saints defensive puzzle, that they've need all along..........

Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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