There are individual matchups that define every NFL training camp.
The ones that get the most attention are usually between direct competitors who pair off in one-on-one drills. But the best battle taking part at the Saints’ headquarters might be the battle of wits between Drew Brees and safety Marcus Williams.
Williams has a read on Brees that is uncommon, even in a training camp setting where the offense and defense become so well acquainted they could call plays for each other. He intercepted the quarterback in three consecutive practices and made Brees invoke the name of Ed Reed, one of the greatest safeties in NFL history, when discussing Williams’ play.
“You had to do a good job of looking off and try to get him leaning one way, and still you’d throw the ball and be like, ‘How did he get there?’ ” Brees said. “Marcus makes some of those plays, where you’re like, ‘How did he get there? Where did he come from?’ ”
Brees wasn't comparing Williams to Reed. He was simply saying the second-year safety does some extraordinary things on the field. Williams showed some of those traits as a rookie by intercepting four passes during the season and another during the playoffs, displaying range that has been absent from this secondary for a long time. And he looks even better than he did as a rookie.
But sometimes Williams is where he is because Brees is coaching him during practices. It might not help the offense win practice battles, but the quarterback hasn’t been shy about giving Williams tips and helping him see the field through the eyes of a quarterback.
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“He’s just telling me if you go over here, I’m trying to sell you out,” Williams said. “Don’t be trying to get out of the middle too quick, because I’m going to throw it on that hash if you get off the hash. Just those little tips that I need for other quarterbacks when I go up against them.”
If everything clicks and Williams and cornerback Marshon Lattimore take the next step in their second seasons, this New Orleans secondary has a chance to be good enough to rival anyone in the league. And that might be the case if those two players just remain the same. They were that good last season.
Rickey Jefferson never stopped working.
But it’s already become clear that Williams has found ways to improve. He’s been all over the field, flashing sideline-to-sideline speed, and has shown an increased ability to read things underneath, crash down and make plays. Not that this is entirely new. He broke up a pass on an underneath route in the playoffs on a pass to Carolina’s Greg Olsen and jumped an intermediate crossing route intended for Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams in Week 17.
The difference isn't the skills. It's how often Williams is making plays. He seems to be everywhere on the field.
“I think we’re seeing him get to throws that you normally may not expect a free safety to get to,” coach Sean Payton said. “So it becomes a little bit more challenging for the quarterback to hold him, know where he’s at on each play, understand when he drops into the coverage as opposed on top of the coverage or outside. You can’t just fall asleep with a player like that, because he catches the ball so well.”
Williams isn’t one to talk about himself much. Ask him about which free safeties he likes to study, he’ll tell you that he has his favorites but would rather keep them to himself. Ask him about his place on the defense, and he’ll let you know that he’s just trying to do his 1/11th and not be Superman.
So outside of the tips from Brees, Williams was reluctant to go into great detail about how he improved this offseason. What he did say, though, is that it isn’t just one area of growth. His understanding of the defense and how offenses operate has improved, which has allowed other skills to kick into higher gear.
“I rely on my film study, my instincts, everything put together,” Williams said. “You don’t just rely on one thing. Great players have a lot of things in their repertoire. Be better. I have a lot of things in my bag just in order so I can be the best on the field.”
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen isn't one to pump players who don't deserve it. He'll let you know when someone needs to be better. He said Williams has everything the team is looking for in a safety.
No one should be surprised with Williams getting to this point. He was that good as a rookie. Don’t let last year's ending color the whole performance. The sequel is promising to be even better.
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