An audible gasp sounded around town when the Ravens traded Haloti Ngata to the Detroit Lions in March 2015.
Ngata was a franchise icon who had made Pro Bowls and spearheaded the rushing defense for almost a decade. How were the Ravens going to keep stuffing the run without him?
Fortunately, they had Brandon Williams, a wide-body nose tackle emerging as a force. Although salary cap considerations dictated their move with Ngata, the Ravens pulled the trigger on the deal at least partly because they knew they had Williams.
In the end, the Ravens fared decently against the run without Ngata in 2015, but they did experience a bit of slippage. They fell from fourth in the league in average rushing yards allowed per game in 2014 to 12th in that statistic in 2015. In average yards per rush, they dropped from third in the league to 10th, allowing at least 4.0 yards per carry for the first time in franchise history.
Williams was crucial to their faring as well as they did. Although he totaled a career-high 53 tackles, his numbers didn't reflect his overall impact. Pro Football Focus ranked him among the league's best run stoppers. A columnist for CBSSports.com called him the most underrated player in the entire NFL.
Entering his fourth season, Williams is now the no-questions-asked star of the defensive line, much as Ngata was. He leads the unit through positional drills at the start of every training camp practice. He plugs the middle in scrimmages.
"We're expecting him to be a dominant player," Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said Friday. "You're at your best when your best players play their best. That's where we are with Brandon."
Timmy Jernigan and either Lawrence Guy or Brent Urban figure to start alongside Williams on the defensive line, and Pees likes to rotate as many as six guys at those positions on Sundays, so the run defense is a multi-headed beast. But it is Williams' presence that gives the Ravens reason to believe the unit will successfully continue to preach one of the franchise's basic commandments, Thou Shalt Stop the Run.
But their ability to do that this season isn't in doubt as much as their ability to do so beyond this season. Williams, 27, is due to become a free agent after this season, and his price tag almost surely will run sky high, casting doubts about his future in Baltimore.
The market for interior defensive lineman has skyrocketed, with emerging stars such as Damon "Snacks" Harrison and Fletcher Cox cashing in big during the recent offseason. Cox, 25, received $63 million guaranteed to stay with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams might not reach that astounding threshold but he's going to be expensive.
Knowing that, it's highly doubtful the Ravens can sign Williams to a long-term deal before he hits the free agent market next year. Why would he restrict himself when he knows other teams are going to line up to pay him?
As for the Ravens' ability to match the big offers expected from other teams next winter … well, as they learned with Kelechi Osemele, sometimes there isn't much you can do, even with the salary cap due to spike in 2017.
If I'm the Ravens, though, I don't just shrug and take no for an answer. I do everything I can to figure out some way, any way, to retain Williams.
They really, really need him.
The fact that they had Williams enabled them to feel good about their run defense going forward without Ngata in 2015, but now, there's no obvious replacement of Williams' caliber coming up behind him.
Basically, there's no Brandon Williams-like player around to replace Brandon Williams.
Yes, the Ravens have added a handful of interior defensive linemen in recent years, including Jernigan, a 2014 second-round pick; Carl Davis, a 2015 third-round pick, and Willie Henry, a 2016 fourth-round pick. Jernigan has become a starter and the franchise hopes they'll all develop into contributors, but as yet, there's no star-in-waiting.
As things stand now, if Williams leaves, he would be missed more than Ngata was last season.
Keeping him should become the team's top priority.