As I've said previously, the Jaguars' defensive improvement from 2010 to 2011 will not carry over to 2012 unless they address their subpar pass-rush. They finished tied for 25th in 2011 with only 31 sacks, and still somehow managed to finagle a top-ten overall defense out of the performance.
To expect that same level of overall defensive performance in 2012 without the help of a competent pass-rush, however, would be foolish.
Jeremy Mincey was solid enough last year to lead many fans to clamor for his re-signing, but though the stats looked nice on the surface, he simply wasn't as good as the sack total suggested. Mincey managed to find his way to the quarterback eight times, but five of those eight sacks came the two games against the hapless Colts.
Though Pro Football Focus rated Mincey as the league's 12th-best 4-3 defensive end, the rating was boosted partially by the 973 snaps he played, the second-highest total among 4-3 ends. He's also already 28 years old, and just had his first good season as an NFL player; it's hard to blame Gene Smith for not being willing to open the checkbook to give Mincey a big payday.
This year's free-agent pass-rushing crop looked a lot more appetizing before the franchise tag deadline. Detroit Lion and Jacksonville native Cliff Avril was given the tag. Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals was tagged. Robert Mathis was tagged by the Colts for about five minutes before agreeing to a long-term deal with the team. Even Anthony Spencer was given the tag by the Cowboys.
What does that leave on the market? John Abraham, Andre Carter, Mark Anderson, Wallace Gilberry. All players who are nearing the end of their careers or who have only had success in a limited role. It could very easily be argued that Mincey is the second-best pass-rusher available in free agency.
Why would Mincey only be the second-best pass-rusher available?
Players like Williams very rarely hit free agency. His 53 sacks prior to the age of 27 place him in the top ten all-time along with players like Bruce Smith and Derrick Thomas. He's 6-foot-7, close to 300 pounds, and ran a 4.66 at the combine back in 2006.
Mario Williams, simply put, is a physical freak of nature.
In 2010, Julius Peppers left the Panthers for Chicago after eight years in Carolina, during which he logged 81 sacks. He was 30 years old when he signed with the Bears, though; Williams is only 27, and should demand at least as much money as Peppers received, if not more.
Peppers' contract was six years for $84 million (potentially $91.5 million) with $42 million in guaranteed money. Using that deal as a parameter, Williams should expect to get offers in the range of $15-17 million annually with close to $50 million guaranteed. That's a lot of cash.
When people think of big spenders in free agency, they very rarely think of the Jaguars, and they shouldn't. Though it seems like the Jaguars have spent big on the likes of Paul Posluszny, Drayton Florence, Jerry Porter, Hugh Douglas, Aaron Kampman, etc., the fact is that none of these players' deals had an average annual value above $7 million a year. Signing Williams would cost over twice that amount.
Should the Jaguars pay the price (likely close to $50 million guaranteed) for Mario Williams in free agency?
So why Jacksonville?
The Jaguars probably have more intimate knowledge of Williams' abilities than 28 of the other 32 NFL teams, minus the Texans and the other two AFC South teams. Facing Houston twice a year for the past six years has given the Jags a great chance to see firsthand just what kind of player Williams is, and whether or not he's worth backing up the Brinks truck for.
Though he's only played six games against the Jaguars in his career, Williams has logged five sacks in those games, and has been a force against the run as well. He's terrorized the AFC South as well as the rest of the NFL for the past six years. He's worth the outrageous money he will command on the open market.
New owner Shahid Khan has stated that the Jaguars will "spend up to the cap," meaning they will have plenty of cash to throw around starting Tuesday at noon ET. If Gene Smith is serious about fixing the pass-rush, he'll be on the phone with Williams' agent at 12:01 to set up a meeting.
Williams may command a ridiculous contract. It may even end up as something like eight years, $120 million with $50 million guaranteed. That's a lot of money, but it's still a smart play for the Jaguars. Rather than throwing smaller deals at "upside" free agents like Pierre Garcon, Wallace Gilberry, or Tim Jennings, it's time for the Jaguars to swing for the fences.
Williams will cost a ton, but signing him would single-handedly improve a pass-rush that would be near the bottom of the league without Mincey to at least the middle of the pack. If they're able to bring Mincey back as well, Williams, Mincey, and potential draft picks could create a pass-rush that would rival the league's best.
Players like Mario Williams don't hit free agency very often. The Jaguars absolutely must pounce.