It was with no small amount of angst that cornerback Cary Williams declined a $15 million, three-year offer from the Baltimore Ravens during the past offseason.
Williams thought he was worth more. And lately, it's looking like he might be right.
After playing in 42 NFL games without an interception, Williams has picked off four passes in his last five games. He leads the AFC in interceptions, and his efficient play has taken some of the sting out of the loss of injured cornerback Lardarius Webb.
"He's a guy that I really believe in," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Williams. "Cary is a competitor. Cary is a fighter. Cary wants to do well so badly, and he's kind of an emotional guy. That's one of the things that I love about him."
Williams, 27, took a rather unconventional route to the Baltimore defensive backfield — beginning with his trip out of Liberty City, the Florida neighborhood where he was born and raised.
"It's one of the murder capitals in the world. It's dark and there's not a lot of hope," Williams said Wednesday. "You see people getting killed, friends dying over drugs and gang violence. It's a struggle to get through."
Williams then played two seasons at Fordham and two at Washburn University in Kansas before being selected in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by Tennessee.
He spent the majority of his first season on the Titans' practice squad before being signed by the Ravens in late November 2009. After first being used almost exclusively on special teams, Williams started all 16 games last year.
In August, he spurned Baltimore's three-year contract offer, taking the chance that he will be worth more to the Ravens — or another team — next year.
"I felt like I was worth more. I felt like I brought a lot of the table," Williams said. "There were a lot of third (string) corners that were getting more than that. In my eyes, I felt like I deserved a lot better. I think I played up to that billing thus far in the season."
Lately, yes he has. Not so much in September, especially in a game against New England in which Tom Brady repeatedly picked on Williams instead of throwing on Webb's side of the field.
Brady "made me a better player," Williams said. "I'm not perfect. Some days, guys are going to have better games than you. I understand that's part of growing up, I'm a younger guy. I haven't had much game experience until last season. I want to put my best foot forward. Fortunately for me, I've been doing it the last few weeks."
The trend started immediately after the New England game, when Williams took his first NFL interception 63 yards for a touchdown in a 23-16 win over Cleveland. He followed that with pickoffs against Kansas City and Dallas, then came up empty at Houston before intercepting a pass last weekend in Cleveland.
Williams hopes to keep the momentum going Sunday when the Ravens (6-2) host Oakland (3-5).
"People can say it's the contract negotiations or he's going into his last year, whatever, but Cary is a focused football player," Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. "People have said all sorts of crazy things about him, people have dogged him, but nobody understands that he's his worst critic. We're his worst critic. We want greatness from everybody."
Williams isn't motivated by money. He wants to be an exceptional football player, and if he achieves that goal he will be paid accordingly.
"Fifteen million dollars is a great deal and it's a wonderful opportunity," he said. "But at the end of the day, my scope has never been small. I take that from days I grew up in Liberty City. I want to continue to strive for more and greater things."
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