The switch from cornerback to free safety paid off figuratively last season and literally on Wednesday for Aaron Williams.
Williams enjoyed the best season of his three-year NFL career in 2013, performing like a capable starter after two sub-par years at cornerback.
The Bills rewarded him Wednesday with a four-year contract extension worth a reported $26 million. Williams’ contract was set to run out after the 2014 season. His new deal comes just two days after Buffalo’s negotiations with free safety Jairus Byrd failed to produce a deal. The Bills opted not to put a franchise tag on Byrd, and he is due to hit the open market on Tuesday.
“I’m very blessed to have a great opportunity to be with a team like this,” Williams said. “We talked at the end of the season that they’re going to give me the responsibility of leading this defense to where it used to be; that’s a dominant defense and being aggressive and being nasty out there and making plays.”
The move represents a decision by Bills General Manager Doug Whaley to proactively retain a player who he thinks has a big upside. While Williams has only one solid season under his belt, he doesn’t turn 24 until next month. Whaley is banking on Williams building off of last season.
Like Byrd, Williams played cornerback in college, and he has the ideal physical tools to become a quality center fielder on the back line of the Bills’ defense.
Williams’ deal averages $6.5 million a year if one counts only the four years of the extension, through 2018. That average currently would rank him ninth among NFL safeties. By 2015, he will be outside the top 10.
“Aaron Williams is a versatile player who has grown into a key playmaker for our defense in recent years,” Whaley said in a statement released by the team. “He had an extremely productive season for our defense in 2013. Aaron is the type of young, core player we targeted early in the process to retain for years to come.”
Williams played 81 percent of the defensive snaps last season, but he missed the last two games due to a rib injury. He played in 91 percent of the defensive snaps over the first 14 games. Williams had a career-high 82 tackles and tied with Byrd for the team lead in interceptions with four.
“Moving to safety wasn’t a huge change,” Williams said. “The only change you have is just more responsibility of play calling. I keep saying when you’re at corner, you don’t really have a responsibility of knowing what everyone is doing. You’re out there on an island man to man the whole time.”
“Coming to safety I do feel comfortable out there,” Williams said. “I like being in control and making sure everybody is in the right position. … It’s being back there as a quarterback and it’s something I grasped in the last season and Jairus taught me a lot. … Moving to safety is probably one of the best things to happen in my career.”
Williams was the 34th overall pick of the 2011 draft out of the University of Texas.
The Bills met Wednesday with free-agent middle linebacker Jameel McClain, who was released last week by the Baltimore Ravens. McClain, 28, was an undrafted rookie out of Syracuse in 2008 but went on to start 54 games over the last four seasons with the Ravens. He was released largely for financial reasons. He was due to count $4.4 million against the salary cap, a high number for a player who did not play in passing situations for the Ravens and who was going to be challenged for a starting job. McClain was a productive run stopper for Baltimore and was viewed as a high-character leader.
“I think this defense suits me well,” McClain said of the Bills’ scheme. “It’s obviously going to be a physical-style defense and physical is exactly what I am.”
McClain suffered a spinal-cord contusion late in the 2012 season but came back to start the last 10 games of last season.
McClain was due to visit the New York Giants today.