The Houston Texans have a decision in front of them that will have a major impact on the team for several years in many different ways: Mario Williams has come up for for his first contract as a free agent, and is due for a big pay day.
There are several things that the Texans must take into account when they decide what their play will be. The first is what their cap can possibly hold. The Texans, like every team in the NFL, will have multiple pieces that they have to resign, but few teams will have a duo of players that are as important as Mario Williams and Arian Foster.
Foster was the key to the entire offense that struggled through injuries throughout the season and may be the best running back in the NFL. In only his third season in the NFL (the first, he only played in a handful of games), he is still a relatively young back and should the Texans' first priority.
After Foster is signed, the Texans will have to evaluate the amount of space under the cap and how much of that can be committed to Mario. Once they have established whatever number they are comfortable with, they can then start deciding which of four options they would like to pursue:
The first is to simply let Mario walk and use the cap space that they would spend on him in one or several other areas. This could be used to address a second wide receiver, another cornerback or perhaps add more depth along the defensive line. The Texans' 2011 season is proof that you can never have too much depth.
The Texans could also franchise Mario and keep him on the team for somewhere around $13 million for a single season. This would almost certainly hurt their cap number this year, but it would prevent them from signing him to a long-term contract and having injuries or poor performance hamstring the team for several years.
What should the Texans do?
The Texans could protect their cap this year and keep Mario if he were to sign a longer term contract. Mario would probably be looking for something along the lines of a six year, $60 million contract. That fits in with many of the elite pass rushers in the league right now.
This has an obvious upside and downside. If Mario has been consistently injured through the first six years of his career, it stands to reason that he will be for the next six years of his career. He also has always excelled because of his brute strength and speed, which at some point in time will invariably diminish.
On the other hand, if Mario is able to spend more time in Wade Phillips' defense and have legitimate pass rushers opposite him, he could put up monstrous numbers. Imagine what Phillips could do with Connor Barwin, Brooks Reed and Mario all rushing on a third and long. Opposing offensive lines would have almost no chance.
Phillips could put Barwin and Mario on the weak side of the offensive line and run stunts that would leave linemen and offensive coordinators in terror. He could put Mario as a defensive end and slide J.J. Watt to nose tackle to increase the pass rush in situations. He could pull DeMeco Ryans out of the middle and have Mario get a running start on an interior pass rush.
If the Texans are not comfortable with Mario being on the team for the long term but don't want to let him go for nothing, there is always the possibility of trading him.
The Jets are a team that come to mind, because they clearly need help finding an edge pass rusher. They also have depth at cornerback that the Texans could be interested in.
It is unlikely that Darrell Revis would be in the discussion, but if the Jets were willing to trade Antonio Cromartie and a draft pick that could be enough to pry Mario away from the Texans, because it fits a need for the team and gives them the ability to get younger and cheaper.
No matter what the Texans do, it will be a very important offseason for them, and one that could have a major impact on them for the next five to 10 years.