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2021 Detroit Lions roster preview: What do the Lions have in store for Nick Williams?

Retaining Williams was a bit of surprise, so there must be a plan for him.

Detroit Lions Mandatory Minicamp Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

This offseason, the Detroit Lions overturned their defensive line, and understandably so. It was one of their most ineffective units on the team. While pass rushing was never much of a priority under Matt Patricia, the team couldn’t even boast a successful run defense. Opposing teams averaged 4.4 yards per carry against the Lions, and Detroit’s run defense ranked 27th in DVOA.

So, Detroit moved on from the likes of Danny Shelton and Everson Griffen, while pumping in a bunch of new resources into the defensive front. They traded for Michael Brockers. They drafted defensive tackles Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike on Day 2 of the draft. It wasn’t a complete overhaul, but it was a pretty big remodeling project.

However, defensive tackle Nick Williams somehow avoided the purge. Despite coming off an inefficient season and having a contract that was just asking to be terminated, the Lions instead asked him to take a pay cut and stick around. And he did.

So what gives? Let’s take a closer look at him in our 2021 roster preview series.

Nick Williams

Expectations heading into 2020

The Lions signed Williams to a modest two-year, $10 million deal during the 2020 free agency period, and there was a fair amount of optimism that came with the signing. Former Pride of Detroit writer Mansur Shaheen called Williams “the injection of talent the defensive line needed.”

Not only did he bring a ton of strength to stiffen the run defense up the middle, but he came with a pretty solid reputation as an interior pass rusher, as well. In 2019, he had six sacks with the Bears.

However, there were a lot of people wondering if Williams was a one-year wonder. Despite coming to the Lions at the age of 30, Williams had only one successful season under his belt—and it was the most recent one. He seemingly came out of nowhere in 2019 and given that the Bears had a pretty talented supporting cast around him, some were skeptical of the signing.

Still, Williams did a more than adequate job replacing Akiem Hicks in 2019, so the Lions were hopeful to get similar production in 2020.

Actual role in 2020

2020 stats: 14 games played (13 starts): 23 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 2 passes defended
PFF grade: 62.7 (71st among 139 qualifying DTs)

Safe to say, the Lions did not get the kind of production they were hoping for. With Da’Shawn Hand and Danny Shelton both battling through injury for much of the season, the Lions relied heavily on Williams. Only two defensive linemen (Romeo Okwara, John Penisini) had more snaps than him on the team. However, his production and impact did not come close to meeting what he accomplished in Chicago the year before.

2019 in Chicago: 531 snaps, 42 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 2 passes defended, 67.7 PFF grade
2020 in Detroit: 538 snaps, 23 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 2 passes defended, 62.7 PFF grade

You could certainly make the argument that Williams didn’t get much help from his supporting cast—he actually graded out better than any other Lions defensive tackle other than Da’Shawn Hand—but it’s hard to call 2020 anything other than a disappointment from Williams.

Outlook for 2021

Contract status: Signed through 2021

It appeared Williams was headed to the cap casualty line this offseason. He was set to cost $5.7 million against the cap, and the Lions could recoup $4.7 million of that if they simply released the veteran defensive tackle. The team opted instead to approach Williams about a potential pay cut. Rather than have to deal with a deflated free agency market, Williams (now 31 years old) agreed to a restructured contract that saved the Lions over $2.6 million in cap space and brought Williams’ salary down by $2.85 million.

The question that has been lingering since the Lions made that decision: Why? Why bother to keep Williams around when he’s 31, coming off an unimpressive year, and you could have saved an extra $2 million simply by cutting him.

We haven’t gotten an answer yet from general manager Brad Holmes or head coach Dan Campbell, so we’re only left to speculate. But the move seems to suggest they not only want him, but have a plan for him.

Of course, this decision was made before the Lions went out and got Onwuzurike and McNeill in the draft, so their plans may have changed. Still, they obviously still see something in Williams. Maybe it’s just having another veteran presence in a pretty young defensive lineman room. Maybe they still see his upside as a pass rusher—something this team has lacked for years now. Maybe they simply knew this team needed to keep someone and couldn’t overhaul an entire department in one offseason. The depth at defensive tackle is still somewhat thin, so having a familiar face around could help.

I wouldn’t say Williams’ spot on the roster is locked in, but it’s hard to imagine the Lions going through all that trouble of keeping him only to cut him in the preseason. Williams will likely have a rotational role behind Brockers, splitting time with Onwuzurike and Da’Shawn Hand. All three will have something to prove, so Williams’ amount of playing time will be heavily dependent on how he performs both in training camp and early regular season games.