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NFL Free Agency 2012: Mario Williams Is The No. 1 Player Available

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Mario Williams leads a deep free agent class in 2012. Will the prized pass rusher stay in Houston or find a new home, and a big new contract, somewhere else?

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"Lost." Ron Jaworski affixed that label to Mario Williams following the Houston Texans first preseason game of 2011. It was the former No.1 pick's debut performance as an outside linebacker in the Texans 3-4 scheme. As a professional television talking head, Jaworski gets paid to attach easy labels to things but Jaws overlooked the fact that converting a 290-pound man from defensive end to outside linebacker is no easy task.

In hindsight, Houston's decision to hire Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator in 2011, and move to the 3-4 defense, was one of the better moves of the year. Many still had their doubts about the move in August, mostly because of the decision to remove Williams' hand from the dirt. Pundits continued on and on about Williams' struggles throughout the NFL preseason.

Then the regular season started. The Texans thrashed the Colts in the opening week. Williams picked up two sacks. Through the first five games of the season, Williams picked up five sacks before suffering a season-ending injury, tearing his pectoral muscle in a Week 5 loss to the Raiders. Williams had 17 quarterback pressures and two quarterback hits to go with those five sacks. Not bad for a guy who was "lost."

Williams should be healed and ready to resume terrorizing opposing quarterbacks in the 2012 season. The question is whether or not he will be doing that with the Texans, the team that shocked the world when they picked Williams with the top pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, over Reggie Bush. Williams is a free agent this year, easily the best free agent available in a deep class of talent for hire.

The Case For Staying In Houston

Houston could use the franchise tag to retain Williams; however, it will cost them a stunning $22 million ... for just one season of play. They paid him $18 million for the final year of his rookie contract.

Strapped for cash, the Texans are still expected to talk to Williams about a contract. Already, though, it feels like a long shot. Why stay in Houston? Why offer a hometown discount when the market will make you the highest paid defensive player in league?

Losing top players that the franchise has already invested heavily in is never a good thing. Rick Smith, Houston's general manager, would be wise to make a strong effort to hang onto a player of Williams' caliber.

Had injuries not devastated the Texans, they might have advanced all the way to the AFC Championship game. They lost to the Ravens in the divisional round. Not a bad result, all in all, for a team that had never made the playoffs in the history of the franchise. Having one of the top defenses in league helped them get as far as they did in the playoffs, despite being led by a rookie fifth-round quarterback.

Keeping Williams would almost be an embarrassment of riches for the Texans' already elite defense. A unit that talented would assure annual trips to the playoffs.

The Money

Williams leads a free agent class unusually stocked with superstars. Peyton Manning could challenge him as the highest paid free agent once the Colts let him go, but Williams, in the prime of his career, is still the best free agent on the market.

So what kind of money could he command this spring?

In 2011's lockout condensed free agent feeding frenzy, the Carolina Panthers gave defensive end Charles Johnsona six-year, $76 million contract, with $30 million guaranteed. Oakland lined Richard Seymour's pockets with a similar, but shorter deal, a two-year, $30 million extension. Both teams overpaid, especially Oakland, but pass rushing comes at a premium in the NFL these days.

Both deals would be the starting points for Williams' next contract.

A deal like the one Washington gave Albert Haynesworth (oops!) in 2009 - seven-years, $100 million with $41 million guaranteed and more available in incentives - is not out of the question for Williams this year. Depending on Manning's deal, Williams should be the highest paid player to hit free agency this year.

Potential Destinations

When considering likely landing spots for Williams, his position has to be considered. Is he an 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end?

What it boils down to is that Williams is a pass rusher, regardless of position. He could thrive almost anywhere on the field playing for a coaching staff that knows how to use his considerable gifts. Williams is probably at his best playing as a defensive end, and he will appeal to teams running a 4-3 defense.

Tennessee desperately needs a pass rusher after mustering just 28 sacks last season. Jacksonville would also make a nice landing spot for Williams, especially if they let Jeremy Mincey get away in free agency. New owner Shahid Khan could really make a splash with a move like that. Buffalo is converting to a 4-3 this season, but have quietly ruled themselves out of the running for Williams, for now.

Miami will likely allow nose tackle Paul Soliai to walk as a free agent, leaving more than $12 million in cap space. After a bad 2011 regular season, as well as being spurned by Jeff Fisher, the Dolphins could be desperate to make a big move. Much will depend on what they do about their quarterback situation.

San Diego and Oakland are also possibilities that have been mentioned. The Chargers really need a pass rusher. Don Banks at even mentioned the Packers as a potential dark horse.

There will be surprises releases and unforeseen moves so things will undoubtedly change but Mario Williams in Miami makes a lot of sense if they don't land Manning. Combining him with Cameron Wake would give the Dolphins an elite pass rushing combo on paper.