The Ravens have become all too familiar with watching their homegrown defensive talent walk out the door.
In recent years, linebacker Paul Kruger (Cleveland Browns), defensive end Arthur Jones (Indianapolis Colts) and linebacker Pernell McPhee (Chicago Bears) have all left for bigger paydays elsewhere.
This year, nose tackle Brandon Williams is a pending unrestricted free agent. But it’s clear the Ravens view Williams as a special talent, and they’re not going to let him go easily.
“We have to try to retain him,” Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta said at the Senior Bowl, which is where Williams impressed the Ravens ahead of the 2013 draft.
“He’s an ‘A’ player for us, he’s one of our best defensive players. He’s a rock inside. This guy can stuff the run, he can rush the quarterback, he can do everything we want him to do.”
Last season, Williams notched 51 tackles and one sack. In four years, including three as a starter, he has 96 tackles, 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Williams, 27, was a major reason why Baltimore was the top run-stopping defense for parts of the season and finished fifth (89.4 yards per game). He enabled the Ravens inside linebackers, C.J. Mosley and Zachary Orr, to run free for much of the 2016 season.
The 2013 third-round pick out of Missouri Southern State is the Ravens’ strongest player, yet still has the athleticism and feet to move his feet and find edges despite his big 6-foot-1, 340-pound frame.
“He’s able to force a double team, and if you don’t double team him, he’s going to make the play in the backfield,” Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen said of Williams at the Senior Bowl. “To me, there isn’t a better nose tackle in football.”
The question, as always with Ravens free agents, is how much money they could be offered on the open market. Last year, the New York Giants signed defensive tackle Damon Harrison to a reported five-year, $46.2 million contract with $24 million guaranteed. Harrison will likely be used as a comparable.
The Ravens could make salary-cap space for Williams, though they also have pending free agents in Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk and right tackle Rick Wagner.
Baltimore could rely on rising second-year nose tackle Michael Pierce, who shined as an undrafted rookie last season, but that would be a gamble, and the Ravens know they have a great one already in Williams.
“[Williams] fits in with the tradition of Ravens defensive tackles and nose tackles, whether it’s Haloti [Ngata], Kelly Gregg, even going further back to Kemo [Ma’ake Kemoeatu], Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa. Brandon’s right there with all those guys,” DeCosta said.
“We feel really good about Michael Pierce, and we feel good that we’ve got guys like Carl Davis coming back and Willie Henry and all these other guys on the roster. But we look at Brandon as a really important part of the puzzle and hopefully he will be back with us.”