Cover Story: Marcus Williams Is a Playmaker Excited About His New Playground
The addition of Marcus Williams brings a ballhawk to the secondary who plans to help the Ravens' defense return to dominance.
By: Clifton Brown
When the Ravens made the blockbuster move to sign Marcus Williams to a five-year contract in free agency, Eric Weddle totally understood.
Williams and Weddle have been friends for years, two safeties who never played together but bonded from having so much in common. They grew up in California, played college football at Utah and are intense students of the game. They understand how talented and cerebral players in the secondary can change a defense's identity.
Weddle ended his career in storybook fashion last year, coming out of retirement for the Rams' playoff run and helping them win a Super Bowl before retiring again. Now Weddle, a seven-time Pro Bowler who spent three seasons with the Ravens (2016-18), can't wait to see what Williams brings to Baltimore's secondary. He thinks it will be a terrific marriage between a talented 25-year-old player who already has 15 career interceptions, and a Ravens defense looking to reestablish its dominance after finishing 19th in overall defense in 2021 and last in pass defense.
"There's a standard that you play in Baltimore, and after watching all their games last year, I think they got a little bit away from that," Weddle said. "They had so many injuries. I think that's why a lot of their emphasis in free agency and in the draft was to fortify their defense.
"Marcus is off to a great start to his career, but he can really take it to the next level in Baltimore. He has an opportunity to make his name, to build off a legacy of Baltimore's defensive stars. He's that good. He has that mindset. Marcus is a true playmaker. He's that guy the Ravens have been yearning for really since Ed Reed left.
"And he's not involved in all the b.s. that can distract football players. With him, it's all about ball. Once people get to know him in the building, the locker room and the city, they're going to love him."
A New Challenge Begins
Joining OTAs this week will be Williams' first opportunity to hit the grass with his new teammates, the beginning of a new challenge after five seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Drafted in the second round (37th overall) by the Saints in 2017, Williams started 75 games and had 15 career interceptions and averaged 64 tackles per season. He only missed four games in five seasons, bringing a track record of durability that is particularly important after what the Ravens went through in 2021.
He was the glue to the Saints secondary, a ballhawk as a pass defender, a force against the run and a leader in the locker room. But after playing under the franchise tag in 2021, Williams knew a change of scenery was likely coming after the Saints allowed him to reach free agency.
"It's kind of weird when you're on a team for five years and you go into free agency," Williams said. "Does the team want you, or do they not want you? It's all a business, so you can never really have your ego get in the way."
Williams was one of the NFL's most coveted defensive players on the open market, but he wasn't sure how the process would play out. He didn't have to wait long for an answer. On the first day of free agency, his phone rang.
"I was making an appearance for kids at my old high school," Williams said. "I get the call from my agent, 'Baltimore's coming on strong.' I'm like, 'Baltimore?" He's like, 'Yeah, this could happen quickly. If they give you this, this, and this, will you take it?' I'm like, 'I'm taking it.' Baltimore is known for defense and they have a good offense. I'll go there, because I have a chance to win big.'
"Twenty minutes later, my trainer was looking at Twitter and said, 'You're going to Baltimore.' I was like, 'What?' He's like, 'Yeah, they're saying it's a done deal. Next thing, I get the phone call from (General Manager) Eric DeCosta and (Head Coach) John Harbaugh. I'm like, OK, it's real. And I'm ready."
Harbaugh remembers feeling elated to get Williams, an ascending player entering his prime who he thought would be difficult to acquire.
"I don't think we went into free agency thinking we were going to get a free safety of that caliber, that he'd be available, that we'd be in the hunt," Harbaugh said. "And for that to happen, and happen quickly when it happened, was a big plus for us.
"You know, it just seemed like a good fit. Sometimes, God works in mysterious ways. Eric came in that morning. We hadn't really talked about Marcus, and he said, 'Hey, let's look at Marcus Williams.' And we did. And we kind of knew him as a player already, but you get into the tape it's like, 'Yeah, he's a really good fit for us.' And then you do some more research and make a couple of calls, you find out what a great guy he is, how hard he works, how much he loves the game. And then, next thing you know, he's a Raven. So I had a big smile on my face, and I got to meet his whole family -- his brothers, the guys who've been beating up on him his whole life, making him who he is, and his mom and dad. Great family. So we're just happy to have him with us."
A Superb Athlete
When it comes to sports, Williams has always been that dude, a guy who stands out even when surrounded by other great athletes. His superb leaping ability and quickness are keys to his playmaking. He had a 43.5-inch vertical leap at the Combine in 2017 and when he competes with wide receivers for contested catches, Williams' hangtime enables him to break up passes other safeties can't.
Williams played football, basketball and ran track at Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, Calif., and on the basketball court, he was known for posterizing opponents with vicious slam dunks.
"I don't play much basketball anymore, but I'm still a skyscraper," Williams said smiling. "If we're on the court, you better get out the way. The basketball background helps you with a lot of stuff in football – moving your feet, hand-eye coordination. There's different footwork, but there's a lot of stuff that transitions.
"When the ball's in the air, I think it's mine every time. Sometimes I may hit my own teammate but that's the cost of doing business. I may take the interception from them, but as long as the other team doesn't get it, I'm happy about it."
Williams' athletic future clearly pivoted toward football when he was a high school senior. Up until that point he was strictly a wide receiver who had never played defense. But with the team struggling, Williams' high school coach, Tony Barile, asked his best athlete to become a two-way player at wide receiver and safety.
In his first game playing safety, Williams had three interceptions.
"No wonder we weren't winning games – the head coach was an idiot," Barile said. "He was our best receiver, but I should've had Marcus playing safety long before I did."
Williams' athleticism caught the attention of Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who played next to Weddle when they were starting safeties at Utah. Scalley said it was hard to take his eyes off Williams' game tape, and that he was more impressive once he watched him play in person.
"He's got some of the best range I've ever seen," Scalley said. "He can mistime a ball, but just hang there until the ball gets to him. Unbelievable ball skills. We were coming off a year when I think we had three interceptions the entire season. I said, this is bull. We're not ever recruiting another defensive back who doesn't have ball skills. His film spoke to me."
Strong Family Ties
When Williams came to Baltimore to sign his contract, he was joined by his parents and siblings. Williams is the youngest of Sylvester and Franschell's four boys, and the family is extremely proud of what their last child has accomplished. Williams was surrounded by the family's love when he signed his contract, and it has been that way for him since the day he was born. His parents worked hard to provide for their children, and with his financial security, Williams is showing his appreciation.
"Last year I retired my dad, and this year I retired my mom," Williams said. "My mother left work last month. It feels good. It means a lot to be able to take stress off them. My mom worked two jobs, my dad worked at an oil refinery as a safety manager. I see how much happier my dad is, not going to work at 3 in the morning.
"My dad never missed a day of work. I'm the same way. I don't get sick, I come in every single day and take care of my business. My dad instilled that in me. I try not to get distracted by the outside noise."
Williams leaned on his family during the darkest moment of his career as a rookie, when he missed a tackle in a 2017 playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings that led to Stefon Diggs' game-winning 61-yard touchdown catch on the game's final play.
It was dubbed the "Minneapolis Miracle" but for Williams it was a nightmare. He was bashed by television analysts and cooked on social media. The Saints' season ended in shocking fashion, and it made people wonder how Williams would handle the fallout.
Williams was deeply disappointed, but he never allowed the criticism to shake his confidence. He explained his mindset during that offseason, when he displayed the toughness needed to be a great defensive back.
"It's a mentality," Williams said. "Mental toughness, mental strength. DB's get beat all the time. It's a part of the game. Either I'm going to stay rock bottom forever, or I can get back up. If I don't get back up, I lose. I'm going to get up and keep fighting.
"I've lost a grandfather and aunt to cancer. That stuff is way worse than losing a football game or missing a play. My grandfather and Aunty fought cancer. Who am I to give up when they were fighting? I don 't care if people saw that play or not. I'm going to make the next play. People could have their opinion. They could say that I suck, that I'm trash, that I'm terrible. But I'm on the field, they're not. They can think whatever they want, but I'm here because they obviously think I can do it."
Williams came back the next season more confident than ever, and he has continued to ascend as a player. Weddle was one of many people who reached out to Williams after the " Minneapolis Miracle" and believes Williams wrote a blueprint for how a defensive back should handle adversity.
"I've lost some games in my career, and I've won a bunch," Weddle said. "You've got to be confident in yourself, to the core. Football doesn't define who Marcus is. He plays it because he's really good, but there's so much more to him. That was a pivotal moment that would have defeated a lot of guys. He just used it as fuel. He worked harder to prove that he wants to be in those moments. It's just amazing to see his mental toughness, his drive, his work ethic. If it had broken him, he would've just been another guy who fizzled out."
Finding His Niche With a New Team
Williams has already spoken with former Saints teammate Mark Ingram about what it's like to play for the Ravens. Ingram told Williams that he would love the culture, his teammates and the fanbase. Williams knows he's joining a team with strong personalities, including a secondary featuring established veterans like cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters and safety Chuck Clark. He'll be joining a new defensive system run by first-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald, and there will be much to learn. Williams will also be asked to help groom rookie safety Kyle Hamilton, the 14th-overall pick in the draft.
Scalley says the Ravens are getting a leader who is true to himself and his teammates.
"He's extremely comfortable in his own skin," Scalley said. "His parents did an unbelievable job of raising him. He doesn't cuss. He was made fun of a lot when he was a freshman, but then all of a sudden he's making plays and he's an all-conference player. People who were calling him a brownnoser started realizing, holy cow, maybe there's more to this guy than I thought. The longer he played here, the stronger his presence became. He commands respect by being himself."
Williams wants to help the Ravens win a Super Bowl, but when asked about individual goals, he became serious. The Ravens invested plenty in him, and he's determined to deliver. He doesn't compare himself to Reed, or Weddle, or any safety who has ever patrolled the secondary in Baltimore. He's his own man on his own mission. And he's determined to make it memorable.
"I usually keep my individual goals to myself – I write them down on a mirror," Williams said. "I have a dream board. I put all my goals on there.
"That way, there's no running from those goals. If you want to erase it, you have to scrub it hard, put the Clorox on it. You can't lie to yourself about what you plan to accomplish. I never do."