Saints Chargers Football

New Orleans Saints defensive back Marcus Williams, right, celebrates with teammates after running back an interception for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

CARSON, Calif. — Marcus Williams never thought he'd be in this position. 

Only two years ago, he was an established veteran, a ballhawking defender bidding for a starter's role across from one of the best cornerbacks to ever play the game.

Now, he's simply trying to make the Saints as a late addition in a crowded cornerback room, and he landed a haymaker on Saturday night.

Early in the fourth quarter, Williams picked off Chargers quarterback Geno Smith and returned the interception 58 yards for a score, breaking the game wide open and living up to the nickname his new teammates have given him in order to differentiate him from the Saints' budding star free safety with the same name.

New Orleans has been calling the veteran "Money."

"I saw the receiver running towards me like he was trying to sell a deep route, and I knew the ball had to come out quick," Williams said. "I just stopped on it, looked back at the quarterback and made the play."

Imagining Williams in this position would have been difficult last spring. Back then, he looked like a man poised to finally assume a starting role in the Jets secondary after years making big plays in sub-packages.

Undrafted out of North Dakota State, Williams quickly carved out a place in a Jets secondary that featured Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, then started making a bid for more playing time by picking off an eye-popping six passes in 2015, then two more in 2016. 

With those stars gone in 2017, Williams looked like he was poised to assume a starting role; in fact, he threatened to grab the role from Cromartie in 2016.

Except that he wasn't able to grab the opportunity in a Todd Bowles-led defense. Williams faltered last season and found himself released in October after playing 38 snaps on a Sunday. Bowles told reporters that other cornerbacks simply were playing better.

Williams hooked on with the Texans and finished out the season with Houston, but there were more road bumps on the horizon. Forgotten in the first couple waves of free agency, Williams signed with Arizona, only to be released in May.

Then he had to wait until after the first week of preseason games to sign with the Saints.

For a player whom the Jets had tendered at a second-round level when he hit restricted free agency, the sudden downturn in value was tough.

"It's been a grind," Williams said. "I always had faith that if I could keep working hard and keep doing my job, something would happen. When I got that call from the Saints, I wanted to make sure I made the most of it."

Signing with New Orleans three weeks into camp left Williams behind a group of young cornerbacks fighting for a spot behind the Saints' top three of Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Patrick Robinson.

Being a veteran in that situation has its advantages.

"I've been playing for a while, so I can pick up on certain things fairly quickly," Williams said.

New Orleans has taken notice of Williams' smarts right away.

"He's extremely intelligent," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Good instincts and ball skills. He's one of those players that quickly can pick up a scheme. He's been a good signing for us."

But with so many cornerbacks vying for a spot, Williams needed to make a splash, and he thought he'd made the wrong kind when he was flagged for pass interference against the Chargers on Saturday night, erasing a pick-six by linebacker Craig Robertson.

"Personally, I thought it was a bad call," Williams said. "I thought I got there right on time."

Williams apologized to Robertson.

Then he went out and atoned for it in a big way, replacing the lost touchdown with one of his own, the first Saints' interception of the preseason and the kind of play that will carry a lot of weight when roster cuts are made before the 3 p.m. Saturday deadline.

"It's huge," Payton said. "If you can make a play in a situation like that, it's important."

Williams has traveled a long road to get to New Orleans.

But the splash he made Saturday will go a long way toward making sure he doesn't have to hit the road again soon.

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.