What’s next for Saints at safety as Marcus Williams heads to free agency?

The opportunity to place the franchise tag on Marcus Williams passed on Tuesday, with the Saints opting not to take advantage.

The move is a bit surprising considering the team placed the tag on Williams last year at the cost of $10.6 million despite needing to clear $100 million in cap space. The expectation was that New Orleans would again prioritize the safety and use similar mechanisms to retain him since this year’s cap situation is far less complicated than it was a year ago, but the team decided to zig when everyone was expecting a zag.

Keeping Williams on the tag this year would have cost $12.9 million. Now, with free agency on the horizon, it seems inevitable that the 25-year-old will test the market and see if he can find a deal that will make him among the highest-paid players at his position. A new deal paying him somewhere in the range of $15 million per season is within reach, and possibly even more.

With that, the odds of Williams playing for another team next season are growing with each passing day.

Why not use the tag? The Saints deserve the space to let their plan unfold before any harsh criticisms come their way. Maybe Williams returns, or the team acquires another player to soften the blow. But it is at least a little curious that New Orleans is willing to risk Williams leaving when he could return at a more than reasonable price.

Some might even consider Williams at the cost of $12.9 million, which would make him the eighth-highest paid safety in the NFL, a bargain. The Saints apparently disagree. The price is certainly high, especially since it has to be absorbed all in one season, but New Orleans has enough flexibility within the cap to make it work and still have room to address several other needs.

The only logical conclusion is that the Saints have a valuation that is a little lower than $12.9 million, or they simply do not feel it is worth taking on the entirety of the hit this season. The team would like to have him back, but only at the number that makes sense to them.

The only problem is that losing Williams would create a massive hole. Make no mistake: This is a risky move for a team that will need its defense to be the strength of the roster.

How did they get here? Williams has made it known that he is excited to reach free agency and get the payday that he has earned. Being one of the league’s top safeties earns you that right. There were also rumblings last year that he was unhappy about being tagged and preferred the long-term security of a multi-year contract. Again, very understandable.

The fact that that deal didn’t come last year, especially given the team’s cap situation, shows that there seems to be a considerable difference in how each side views Williams’ value. That happens. Sometimes a player needs to go out, test the market and see how the rest of the league views him. A few years ago, Andrus Peat went through this process, and the Saints were able to sign him for much less than expected after the guard got a feel for his market.

Perhaps that happens with Williams, though it seems doubtful. While he is far from perfect, the safety is one of the better players in the league and has range and vision that few in the league can match. It seems almost guaranteed that he’ll get a big offer, but you never know.

Could he return? New Orleans would welcome Williams back, but at this point, smart money says he’s gone.

What other safeties are available? If the Saints go shopping for another top safety, one could argue that they should have just kept Williams on the franchise tag since the price will be comparable. But this might be more about how the Saints can structure the deal than the overall cost per year.

So, if the team is still doing some heavy shopping, there are options. Guys like Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye, Quandre Diggs and Devin McCourty are all available.

Mathieu is more of a do-it-all player who can play all over the field, which would make him a fit, but the Saints might have to change up how they operate a little bit without Williams’ range.

Maye has a lot of range and started to show some more versatility down in the box the last few years, which is something Dennis Allen values in his safeties.

Diggs has become a reliable safety, and McCourty is on the downside of his career but could be a stopgap for a team in transition.

Who is on the roster? The depth chart at safety is a little bit scary right now. Malcolm Jenkins and C.J. Gardner-Johnson are both very good players in their roles, but the Saints don’t have a player who fits the mold of a free safety. J.T. Gray is the only other player currently under contract.

Along with Williams, P.J. Williams and Jeff Heath are scheduled to hit free agency. This might be a position where the Saints need to double-dip for additional depth if P.J. Williams also departs.

A position that was a strength a year ago could very quickly become a major need depending on how things play out.

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