Rejoice, Buffalo. You win free agency today.
Allowing Mario Williams to leave Buffalo without a contract would have been crippling for the Bills after two days of hosting and courting the free agent defensive end. What’s more depressing is that the reaction of the fan base would have been the expected outrage and disgust at first, before quickly fading into acceptance. This is a football city that’s grown to acknowledge failure as an integral part of its existence and history.
That didn’t happen, and Williams has been signed to a six-year deal worth $100 million, with $50 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The deal sets a new watermark, with Williams now earning the most guaranteed money for a defensive player in league history, and he’ll be playing under a contract that easily dwarfs the previous high, which was the $84 million deal Julius Peppers signed with the Bears in 2010, with $24 million guaranteed.
The area of need for Buffalo was clear, and they had plenty of cap room to buy a solution to a defensive problem that saw opposing quarterbacks stay far too upright. Bills GM Buddy Nix entered free agency with roughly $30.8 million to work with, and if the Scheft is accurate with his terms, then Williams will account for about $16.6 million of Buffalo’s 2012 salary cap.
Beyond the sheer weakness of a pass rush that registered just 29 sacks last year, the need to acquire Williams also stemmed from a minor housekeeping item. New defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt is switching to a 4-3, a move made challenging at first by a lack of quality defensive ends to power an outside pass rush. After adapting to a stand-up style and playing as an outside linebacker in Houston when the Texans drafted J.J. Watt, Williams will now return to his natural habitat at defensive end. He’ll join Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, creating a strong front seven that will immediately complement a secondary that had 20 interceptions last year, and add to an overall ball-hawking defense that recovered nine fumbles.
There’s risk here, which is the generic statement associated with any massive, record-breaking NFL contract, and especially one given to a player who missed all but five games in 2011 with a pectoral injury. Defensive ends are highly valuable, and capable of changing a game. We’ve seen this with elite talents like Peppers and Dwight Freeney, and we’ll see it now with Williams in Buffalo and his 23 sacks over the past three seasons.
But that generic statement seems to be far more pertinent now after Calvin Johnson’s own record-breaking deal yesterday that’ll see him make $132 million, and $60 million guaranteed. Williams hasn’t played a full season since 2009, and he’ll now be making the same guaranteed money as Larry Fitzgerald, slightly more than Tom Brady ($48.5 million), and significantly more than Aaron Rodgers ($20 million).
In the eternal invalid comparison between apples and oranges, Rodgers and Brady will be labeled as apples, and Williams the orange. It is indeed difficult to accurately compare the contributions made by very different players at very different positions, but there’s one common number that every major free agent is measured by eventually: did their signing result in more wins?
The spectacularly failed cannonballs into the deep free agency pool have made the equation that simple. The Bills are now resting their pocket book on Williams being far closer to Peppers, and far from Albert Haynesworth.