Last night, the Houston Texans made their preseason debut against the New York Jets on Monday Night Football. The Texans used the national stage to show off their new 3-4 defense under Wade Phillips by tallying seven sacks—a franchise preseason record.
One player that didn’t join in the fun was Mario Williams. Williams played approximately 15 snaps and was held without a sack or even a real quarterback pressure to speak of. So even though the defense received rave reviews for its performance, Mario Williams has instead received increased scrutiny.
Several fans have even adopted the opinion that general manager Rick Smith should seek a trade for Williams. This would be the worst personnel transaction of Smith’s tenure.
The fault of this decision is not based on a belief that Williams will succeed in his transition to outside linebacker. Even the staunchest of Williams' supporters must temper their optimism until Mario proves on the field that he can succeed at his new position.
Attempting to trade Mario Williams though, would be a mistake even if they were convinced that he will not be successful as a rush linebacker. It would be a blunder for many different reasons—the greatest of which might be a mismanagement of leverage.
15 Snaps Can’t Determine Value
To trade Williams at any point would mean that the Texans have determined that he won’t be valuable as a linebacker in the future. That doesn’t mean, however, that he wouldn’t still be valuable to the Texans in 2011.
Since being drafted as the first overall pick in 2006, Williams has recorded 48 sacks in 77 games. Until teams determine that Williams cannot supply the same type of pressure from the standing position, they will design their protection schemes to stop him above any other Texans defender.
This was evident during the few snaps that Williams played against the Jets. Gary Kubiak himself claimed that many of the plays and formations called by Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer were designed to avoid Mario’s side of the field or neutralize him as a rusher.
If opposing teams decided that they would rather take their chances against Williams than other Texans defenders and Mario was still unable to regularly pressure the quarterback, he would likely be moved to defensive end in the 3-4 system, otherwise known as a five-technique.
This would necessarily be a negative development. Many suspected that Williams would be a natural fit for five-technique within Wade Phillips’ one-gap system. Williams would once again be able to put his hand in the dirt and join a potent defensive end rotation with Antonio Smith and JJ Watt.
Don’t Talk Trade…Yet
At the end of 2011, if Williams had to be moved to defensive end then the trade talk would not only increase, but at this time, it would be appropriate. Unless Williams could regularly produce sacks as a five-technique, which is rare for the position, the Texans would likely be willing to move on without him.
Given this end state, Williams would likely view the decision by Phillips to shoehorn him into a 3-4 system as an imprudent one. He would look to sell his services to a new team that employed a 4-3 defense in need of a defensive end. His price would not be cheap, but there would be plenty of teams willing to pay it who also felt that Williams could still play in the right scheme.
The Texans would likely not allow Williams to test the free market. Given the investment they paid for Williams and the interest in his services, they would franchise him and attempt to trade him to the team willing to pay the most. They would probably get at least a first-round pick for the departing Williams.
Low Risk, High Reward
This is why trading Mario now would be so foolish. Teams’ 2011 rosters are complete, for better or for worse. Would there be suitors for Williams? Yes, but not nearly as many as there would be around the time of the 2012 draft as teams looked to rebuild around franchise players, so the price would be lower due to less demand.
Applying the franchise tag to Williams next year is a move that involves little risk for the Texans. No matter whether Mario qualified as a linebacker or defensive end at the end of the season, the tag would make Williams more affordable than he is right now.
This season, Houston will pay him $13.8 million. In contrast, the tag for linebackers is $10 million, and for defensive ends, it is $12.9 million. With the realization that the tag only increased $300,000 and $500,000 respectively from 2010 to 2011, it is safe to assume that Williams would be cheaper in 2012 if for some reason a trade partner could not be found.
That means that in a year in which the salary cap is sure to go up, the Texans might be willing to pony up the money in order to keep him around for one more season. After all, Williams has already shown that he can rush the passer and hold up extremely well against the run from the three-point stance.
To panic now and seek a trade would mean taking lesser compensation and removing a great player from the roster that the coaching staff is relying on. Rushing the deal now would have no benefit either, given that the payment for Williams would be a 2012 draft pick whether he was traded now or after the season.
Even if the OLB experiment fails, they will still need him at defensive end. Either way, motivation shouldn’t be an issue for a player that knows he is auditioning for a mammoth contract. The worst thing that could happen from the Texans' perspective is if Williams hurt himself significantly, but they don’t owe him any guaranteed money after this season anyway.
Essentially, Mario Williams is the ultimate low-risk, high-reward investment for the Texans. If he does well at OLB, obviously they win. If he doesn’t but is moved to DE, they get one more year from an impact player and either acquire an extra first-round pick or make him take a pay cut.
Even if he failed as a five-technique, teams would convince themselves it was the system and still seek to trade for him.
The only way to lose is to give up and trade him now, which is exactly why it will never happen.
Have differing thoughts on the Mario Williams trade requests?
Let me know either in the comments or Twitter (@JakeBRB).