Last week I suggested, in an effort to make more cap room for the splash that Rick Smith claimed that the Houston Texans were going to make in free agency, they should go ahead and extend Mario Williams to cut down on his 2011 base salary. The reaction I got from readers was surprising.
For those that missed the article I’m speaking of, Williams is entering the last season of his rookie six-year deal and he is slated to make $13.8 million in 2011. I argued that if the Texans signed him to a long-term extension with a large signing bonus and low base salary it would give the team as much as $7 million in extra salary cap space.
I expected some Texans fans to balk at the numbers I was suggesting. After all, I was using DeMarcus Ware’s seven-year, $78 million contract as a template. Many comments I received on Twitter, however, insinuated whether Williams should be a candidate for re-signing at all until he proves that he can play OLB in Wade Phillips’ defense.
My initial reaction was a simple chain of reasoning. If Williams doesn’t succeed in Phillips’ system, then Phillips’ defense will fail in Houston. If Phillips’ defense fails, than the Texans will fail to make the playoffs. If the Texans fail to make the playoffs, Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips will be fired and the Texans rebuild for the future.
Part of that rebuilding effort would likely be switching back to a 4-3 defense. With the exception of a couple players drafted this year, Williams and the majority of defensive players currently on the roster were acquired to play in a 4-3 defense. Also, first-round selection J.J. Watt was said to be scheme diverse, so he wouldn’t be useless with switching back.
The foundation of any successful defense in the NFL is a pass rusher. Who else would be that elite pass rusher for the Texans going forward besides Williams? He is clearly the best pass rusher on the roster now, and it would be hard to imagine drafting any rookie in 2012 that would be better.
Williams is the franchise record holder for career sacks with 48. That isn’t necessarily a huge accomplishment considering how young and defensively inept of a franchise the Texans have been. Detractors might believe his decreasing sack totals over the last four seasons (14, 12, 9, 8.5) a reason to doubt the long term viability of the former first overall pick.
Dovetailing on that concern is the injuries that Williams has suffered in his career. Foot problems apparently bothered him his rookie season and since then he has been limited by shoulder, groin and sports hernia injuries. It's hard to give someone with that history a six- or seven-year deal.
Despite all of those injuries though, Williams has missed three games in his career, which came at the end of last season after it was clear that 2010 was a lost season for the Texans. Injuries might be a concern with Williams, but the ability to play through those injuries shouldn’t be.
Declining production is really an indication of a more serious problem; inconsistency. Out of the 61 games that Williams has played in over the last four seasons, he failed to record at least 1 sack in 30 of them. One of the biggest knocks on Williams is that he disappears for games at a time, and that statistic seems to lend credibility to that.
Williams’ true worth cannot be measured in sack statistics, though. For most of his career in Houston, he has lacked an additional pass rusher to help finish plays. For anyone that has watched the Texans every week, they have seen quarterbacks flushed from their position in the pocket by Williams, but no one capitalizes on this forced movement with a sack.
Take for example the charting project that Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders conducted to chronicle quarterback hurries. In 2010, Williams had only 4.5 sacks through the first nine games, but he was third in the league with 22.5 hurries in that same time period, good for 2.5 a game.
That is incredibly impressive considering that opposing teams create the blocking scheme of their game plan to stop No. 90 because he is the only serious pass rushing danger. This is exemplified by how many double teams Williams constantly faces. It is further shown by the fact that in the last four seasons, the highest Texans player sack total other than Williams was 4, 4.5, 4 and 5.5 sacks.
There’s another scheme flaw revealed by these statistics. For years, Texans fans complained about the lack of a bookend pass rusher at defensive end opposite Mario Williams. In 2009, Antonio Smith was signed to fill that role, but as I just showed he has failed to capitalize on the pressure created by Mario.
In the previously mentioned QB hurries chart, however, Smith ranks ninth. That means that opposing quarterbacks felt a decent amount of pressure from the left and right sides, but they were able to simply step up in the pocket. The Texans have never been able to collapse the pocket from the middle of the line.
The highest sack total other than Williams’ was 5.5 by defensive tackle Amobi Okoye in 2007. It is likely no coincidence that 2007 was also statistically Williams’ best year as a pass rusher with 14 sacks. Pressure up the middle created opportunities for Williams to get to the quarterback who was moving laterally in a collapsing pocket.
All of this could be construed as massaging an argument to make it fit an agenda. I obviously feel that it would be ludicrous to let Williams walk in free agency in 2012. The only scenario for that to be justifiable in my mind would be if he is terrible at WOLB, but Connor Barwin succeeds making the defense successful and subsequently Williams expendable.
I don’t see this happening, however. Williams has been, and will continue to be the foundation of the Texans defense. Up to this point though, they have not built on that foundation because of a lack of supporting cast and terrible scheme.
I think Williams will thrive under a real defensive coordinator in Phillips so this whole argument would be moot. If that does happen though, the Texans will be on the hook for a lot more money to get Williams re-signed than they would be right now because they would have a lot of competition.
Do you think it is a smart idea to extend Williams now rather than try to sign him after his final contract year? Let me know either in the comments or Twitter (@JakeBRB).