The franchise tag deadline came and went Monday, and the Texans opted against using their tag on former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams. This means one of the league's premier pass rushers likely will hit the open market when free agency begins March 13. Where will Williams end up in 2012?
Texans will have to fight off Seahawks, FalconsThere are plenty of teams that could use Mario Williams, but the two places I've recently heard that could be in play are Seattle and Atlanta. The Seahawks' emerging defense could thrive with a versatile "elephant" linebacker/defensive end like Williams who can really get after the quarterback. The Falcons are letting aging pass-rush specialist John Abraham hit the free agent market and they desperately need a pass rusher in a division loaded with talented QBs.
When all is said and done, though, I think the Texans find a way to retain Williams, who is too young and too good to let walk away.
Eagles could make biggest free agency splash ... againThere are a number of teams that need an outside pass rusher and Mario Williams is versatile enough to do it as a defensive end or outside linebacker. He is entering his prime and there are very few options in this year's draft at DE.
I think Jacksonville will come hard after him. The Jaguars have a need, plenty of cap room and know him well from the division. My three dark-horse teams are the Patriots (need), Jets (need) and Eagles (not a need, but the Eagles do like pass rushers).
I'll go against conventional thinking and pick the Eagles. They pulled off the Nnamdi Asomugha signing when nobody expected it. Mario Williams in a wide nine technique would be something to watch!
Williams could be missing piece for Packers' defenseIf Mario Williams decides to take his talents out of Houston, think of him again as a 4-3 defensive end. In a QB-driven league, the next most valuable players are pass rushers, and Big Mario is one of the best.
Green Bay is not a 4-3 team, but its lack of pass rush contributed to not defending the title. Atlanta also could use Williams to fortify its pass rush.
Pair Williams with Peppers? Scary thought for Bears' foesIf you'll allow me the chance to offer a possibility, here's one which could be interesting: the Chicago Bears. Can you imagine a defensive line with Williams and Julius Peppers? That would be one way to slow down division rivals Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. Is this just a fantasy or could it become reality?
The Bears figure to be bidders in free agency. The team has been linked to Vincent Jackson, but free agent receivers can be tricky. It would be more prudent to address the receiver issue in the draft (Michael Floyd?).
I'd put the money into Williams, who instantly improves the defense and makes the cornerbacks much more effective, filling another need. And let's be honest, as a football fan, I would love to see a defensive line with bookends Williams and Peppers. It would be too much fun to watch. And for the Bears, it would make a lot of sense, too.
Falcons could win South with Williams in the mixThe Atlanta Falcons are the best fit for Williams. They desperately need a pass rusher of his skill, and GM Thomas Dimitroff has made it known they need to become more explosive along the defensive front.
Williams will command an enormous salary, but his ability to create disruption off the edge could push the Falcons over the top in the NFC South.
Titans, Seahawks might make most senseIt's fun to hear the sexy names like Christina Hendricks and Olivia Munn tossed ... er, sorry ... Dallas and New England tossed around, but let's be realistic. Williams is more of a luxury than a need for the Cowboys, who might have Jerry Jones playing corner next season. There's been a lot of chatter about Williams and the Patriots, but come on: He's in the prime of his career and this is the last big contract he'll ever sign. He's not taking less to go play for the Patriots. So I'm looking at the teams with the most money, who can afford a big contract, and I keep coming back to Tennessee and Seattle.
The Titans are intriguing. They could help cripple a division rival while immensely helping themselves. That might be too hard to pass up, even though their palms would sweat at the final price tag. The Seahawks just committed a lot of cash to Marshawn Lynch, but they give me every indication that they're heading into free agency with a spending purpose. They didn't use their franchise tag, which everyone thought could go to Red Bryant for upwards of $10 million for next year. But doing so might have stopped them from going after Williams. Now they can.