I'll start by saying that as a fan I want to see Mario Williams stay in Houston. It would be nice to have him around for what should eventually be referred to as the the good'ole days. Especially after the harsh treatment he received on draft day and through his first couple of years here. If you were on the Bush bandwagon (I wasn't. No, seriously) I hope you learned your lesson about booing unpopular picks on draft day, but that's a subject for another time.
I've accepted the fact that Mario might not be here next year mainly for salary cap reasons. I've heard a lot of chatter around town that this doesn't matter because Barwin/Reed are just as good if not better than Mario. I love both Barwin and Reed, but I think that fails to give credit to the type of player Mario Williams is.
As edge rushers, the first thing that always comes up is sacks, so that's what I'm going to focus on. Just looking at sacks can be deceiving though, so let's take a broader look at pass rushing. I'm going to use a lot of Pro Football Focus numbers (standard disclaimer about PFF's #'s goes here). One of PFF's signature stats is pass rushing productivity. Basically they add up how many sacks, hits, and hurries a player gets and divide it by how many times they rushed the passer. Hits and hurries are weighted as being worth .75 of a sack. I think this is a very useful way to get a general sense of a player's performance. I pulled the numbers for Mario, Barwin, and Reed from last year(including playoffs) and Mario's numbers from 2010 for a larger sample size.
|Mario Williams (2011)||5||2||15||126||14.1|
|Mario Williams (2010)||11||13||36||465||10.3|
|Connor Barwin (2011)||12||19||28||598||7.9|
|Brooks Reed (2011)||10||6||26||472||7.2|
At first glance they look fairly similar, but to give you a sense of how these numbers compare to the rest of the league take a look at PFF's article, "Three Years of Pass Rushing Productivity: Edge Rushers" from June 2011. If you're too lazy to click that link I'll give you a summary. Mario's PRP puts him just outside the top 20 in 2010. Mario's numbers from 2008-2010 (9.36) place him 17th on the list for all edge rushers. It looks like Reed's and Barwin's numbers will compare really well against other 3-4 OLB's this year. However, if you look at the three year scores for all edge rushers in the previous link that level of the production would barely have them outside of the bottom 20.
Now, take a look at this article from one of my other favorite sites, Football Outsiders. I think it points out one important factor. Reed and Barwin were able to put up nice sack totals in part because Wade Phillips scheme gave them a couple of easy ones and something called a coverage sack where the QB was forced to hold onto the ball for a long period of time because all his receivers were covered (I didn't even know that was legal. Thanks Wade!). That's not to say Mario never got any "cheap" sacks. My point is he was still able to produce without the benefit of well designed defensive scheme based on pressuring the QB.
With only one year of numbers from Reed and Barwin it's not a perfect comparison. Both should improve with more experience, and it is possible they surpass Mario's level of production one day. Just remember, for most of his time here Mario's been playing in a Frank Bush or a Richard Smith designed defense much less potent than the system Wade Phillips has in place now, and was still able put up production on par with some of the best in the business.
The Rest of the Story
There is more to playing OLB than rushing the passer. Without sitting down with someone and watching a bunch of film it's hard to come to any kind of consensus on who's better in the run game. Personally I think Mario brings a lot to defense in regards to stopping the run, but we could spend hours debating who does a better job against the run (Mario IMO), or who's better in coverage (Barwin or Reed IMO) and never reach a consensus. I don't want to do that, so let's look at an area where there is a clear distinction.
I think one area where Mario adds something that Reed or Barwin can't is Mario's versatility. If Mario comes back there's no reason we couldn't expect him to take some snaps from the DE position. I think it's perfectly feasible to rotate Mario between OLB and 3-4 DE without losing much either way and helping to keep both groups fresh. There's not many players who you could even consider doing that with. Hell, I wouldn't mind seeing them trying out Mario at nose tackle in a T-N-T front on passing downs like Buddy Ryan used to do with Reggie White. Frankly the idea of what Wade Phillips can come up with having Mario, Barwin, Reed, Antonio Smith, and JJ Watt all on the field at the same time gives me this weird tingly sensation all over. I'm not sure why, but I'm pretty sure it's awesome.
The fact is players with Mario Williams combination of strength, size, and athleticism just don't come along very often. If we can't get a new deal done with him I will feel slightly cheated because we never really got to see what a defensive mind like Wade could get out of him. If the economics don't work out I won't be too upset though( I do have a small glimmer of hope). That's just the nature of the beast in today's NFL.
-Reed and Barwin did a Fantastic job this year and the future looks bright no matter what
-Mario Williams is a unique talent and we should be appreciative of what he's brought to this team whether he stays or not
-Don't cheapen what Mario Williams has accomplished by trying to rationalize that Barwin and Reed are better because of simple sack numbers. Outside of five games Mario has never played surrounded by the talent we have now, nor has he gotten to play for a defensive mastermind like Wade Phillips.
-I'm as excited about this team's chances next year, and farther down the road than I ever have been.