One of the more baffling events of the offseason was that the Texans (thus far) have decided not to re-sign Mario Williams to a new contract. The signing would have freed up more money and possibly given Houston the wiggle room to sign another free agent that could help them this season, and that would seem to be something Williams has earned over his years in Houston.
I have a couple of pet theories on this subject that I don't think have been aired enough. One is completely logical to me, and the other is a bit of a conspiracy theory. Get your tinfoil hats perfectly adjusted and then join me after the jump.
While Mario has only missed a few games in his career (the last few meaningless ones of last year), he's spent much of the past two years battling injuries. He basically played 2010 with one arm. That deserves praise, and more people really should talk about his toughness for doing what he did for the team down the stretch, as it was a big factor in the Texans narrowly missing the playoffs. However, it also provides a foundation for why you wouldn't want Williams on a long-term deal just yet: There isn't a skill in the NFL that is as important as staying healthy. Having an injury-prone player on a long-term deal can be a complete cap-killer, and given what Williams has gone through the last two seasons, it makes sense to want to see him inked to a long-term deal.
2) The linebacker conversion project
You'll need to follow me a bit for this one.
I've never thought, in the limited "wrinkle" looks that I saw in Frank Bush's defense, that Williams looked particularly adept at rushing the passer while standing up. That doesn't mean he's a lock to be a poor linebacker for the Phillips scheme; nor does it mean that someone with his pass-rushing talent can't learn to rush standing up better. Given that the Phillips 3-4 can basically be a glorified 5-2 at times, his hand will be on the ground plenty. I'm noting this because the decision to move Williams to linebacker didn't come immediately. Williams' skill set is best suited to the defensive end position, even in a 3-4.
I think it's clear by the timeline of actions that the Texans took that they would have preferred that Williams stayed at defensive end. With J.J. Watt being the best player on the board at No. 11 overall, and the team not seeing another immediate solution to the most important position in the Phillips scheme in either free agency or the draft, the fit of Williams at linebacker was the path of least resistance.
I can see Williams succeeding as a 3-4 OLB, even though I don't think it's his best spot, but what I think this really buys the Texans is time. If Williams has a great year at the spot, the Texans will be thrilled. If he doesn't, the team has multiple options. They can try to address the position in next year's draft or free agency and move Williams back, potentially freeing up a lot of cap room in the process by shedding Antonio Smith.
More importantly, should they franchise Williams is a linebacker, it would cost a little more than three million less than it would as a defensive end. In fact, unless I'm missing something, it would likely end up with Williams taking a pay cut thanks to the arcane rules of the system. I don't think the Texans are being disingenuous by moving Williams to linebacker. They have to think that is the best chance for them to succeed this season given their options. But by doing so they also give themselves a few outs to potentially exploit if it doesn't work out for the best. It's a lot easier to have injury-prone players (which I think is a label we can fairly give to Williams if he misses more time this year) on one-year contracts.
Look at it this way: Either Williams grows into the role and becomes the absolute linchpin of the defense (and gets paid like it) or Williams moves back to his old position next season at a reduced salary. Either way, the Texans win. I'm not exactly the biggest Rick Smith supporter in the office, but the way he has set this up is pretty suave.