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HOUSTON (CBS Houston) — The official beginning of the NFL free agency period is Tuesday, which means the Texans are now on the clock.
Do they lock up free agent Mario Williams? Or do they allow their former No.1 draft pick and standout pass rushing defensive end/outside linebacker to become perhaps the highest paid defensive player elsewhere?
Just based on the way organization has moved this offseason or in this case hasn’t moved in an attempt to stop Williams from hitting the free agent market, it would seem general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak have decided they can live without Williams.
That would be a huge mistake and one the franchise would regret. Williams is a rare talent at one of the most coveted jobs in the NFL, which is sacking quarterbacks.
Williams had the unfortunate luck of suffering a season-ending injury (torn pectoral muscle) in his contract year. Making matters worse, the Texans new 3-4 scheme seemed to not miss a beat without him by sliding Connor Barwin over to Williams weakside outside linebacker spot and inserting then inserting rookie Brooks Reed on the other side. Barwin, who is certainly not as gifted an athlete as Williams, was impressive as a push rusher in star-making spot of Wade Phillips’ aggressive scheme.
But while Barwin’s effort might have solidified in the minds of some that the defense will be fine without Williams, that’s flawed thinking. Was there any thought to how much better the defense could have been with a freakish talent like Williams taking direct aim at the quarterback?
Keep in mind Williams was starting to look comfortable in his new role as an outside linebacker when he suffered the season-ending injury against the Oakland Raiders five games into the season. He had recorded four sacks in 4.5 games. Imagine what his production would have been like if he had been able to play in the next 11 regular season games.
As good as the Texans defense was in leading the franchise to its first playoff appearance, having Williams bringing pressure from the weakside and Barwin manning the strong side with Brooks coming off the bench will be the difference between a second round playoff exit and a Super Bowl championship.
Williams is a difference maker and a rare talent which is why Charley Casserly wisely picked him No.1 overall six years ago when the more popular selections would have been taking either Reggie Bush or Vince Young. Neither has come close to the All-Pro and often times dominating career Williams is having.
What’s mind boggling is the Texans could be on the verge of losing Williams for nothing.
Williams will be the top free agent to hit the market Tuesday and don’t expect this to drag out. Two or three days tops. Either he will re-sign with the Texans or move on to another team quickly. Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Chicago and the New York Jets are all said to be lining up to make their best pitches.
While the Jaguars have the most cap room to sign Williams to a rich deal, some believe the Chicago Bears could be an intriguing option with Williams lining up opposite stud Julius Peppers to create a pass rushing combo that hasn’t been seen in the NFL in a while. There is talk that Williams would like to play for the Bears but with Chicago having a serious need for a wide receiver and already paying Peppers a large sum of money, it’s hard to imagine they can offer the type of money Williams will be demanding this week.
The Falcons are also emerging as a real possibility, especially with the organization’s decision to part ways with aging defensive end John Abraham. Williams could be the piece to put the Falcon over the top.
Williams realistically is a great fit for any team in the NFL because of his coveted talent as a push pass rusher. There is, however, a little competition out there now with the Indianapolis Colts deciding late last week to begin shopping All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney as that franchise begins its youth movement. Teams will be lining up for Freeney’s services, as well.
That could bode well for the Texans if they have any desire to keep Williams. After locking up restricted free agent running back Arian Foster last week, Williams has to now be their biggest priority. Keeping free agent center Chris Myers is important, too, but keeping Williams should be seen as far more critical.
The key now is making it all work and fit under the always challenging salary cap.