The more I think about it, the more it’s hard to imagine a good reason why the Falcons shouldn’t pursue Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams on the open market come next week.
Williams is likely to be one of the most coveted free agents in recent memory. Teams are constantly looking for top pass rushers, and few would argue that Williams is not one of the best currently in the league. The Texans did not slap him with a franchise tag, and thus are likely to lose him to the highest bidder.
Given recent deals that Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware, and Elvis Dumervil have signed that included $40 million or more in guaranteed money, the market likely will dictate that Williams will make more. Basically, Williams will make as much money as a franchise quarterback, exceeding the guaranteed dollars that Philip Rivers and Eli Manning have received in recent years and potentially approaching the guaranteed dollars of Tom Brady ($49 million).
In fact, if the Falcons attempt to extend the contract of Matt Ryan in the next 18 months, Williams’ contract could potentially rival Ryan’s for who is the highest paid player on the team. And so the question becomes can the Falcons afford two players on the roster that are guaranteed $40-50 million. Especially in an off-season where the Falcons are likely to pay premium dollar deals to cornerback Brent Grimes ($20 million-plus guaranteed), and Curtis Lofton (potentially approaching $20 million).
I think the answer is yes, but the Falcons have to be smart about their spending. Let’s examine the biggest contract for a defensive end signed by Julius Peppers with the Chicago Bears in March 2010. That deal was worth $84 million over six years with $42 million guaranteed. Another $7.5 million could be earned via incentives. Any deal with Williams, is likely to be structured similarly.
It’s likely that his first three years of base salary will be guaranteed. For Peppers, that amounted to $10.7 million. It’s also likely that he’ll receive a small signing bonus as well as a large roster bonus in the first year. For Peppers, that combined for $19 million. He’ll also likely receive a large guaranteed bonus in 2011, that also can be restructured to prorate over the life of the contract rather than hit all in one year. For Peppers, that was a $10.5 million bonus. And in the case of Peppers, and likely with Williams, a small part of his fourth year base salary may also be guaranteed to make up the difference. For Peppers, that number was $1.8 million to give him the $42 million total.
Peppers contract initially had base salaries of $900,000 in 2010 and 2011, both of which were guaranteed. He received an initial signing bonus of $6.5 million, which was prorated over the six years of the contract (roughly $1.1 million per year added to the salary cap), and an initial roster bonus of $12.5 million that was absorbed entirely in 2010. Both of those bonuses were guaranteed. Add in a $100,000 workout bonus, Peppers first year cap hit in 2010 was about $14.6 million. In the second year of the deal, he had a $10.5 million roster bonus, but the Bears were able to restructure and convert that into a signing bonus, meaning it would be prorated over the remainder of the contract, saving them roughly $8 million in 2011 cap space. That meant that Peppers 2011 cap hit was roughly $4.2 million. His base salary jumped to $8.9 million in 2012, fully guaranteed, which made his cap hit around $12.2 million.
The issue for the Falcons is not whether they can afford to spend that sort of money this year. With an estimated $30 million in cap space to spend, it’s likely the Falcons could absorb a first year cap hit by Williams that would pay him roughly around $15 or so million, similar to Peppers. Their question centers more on how much maneuvering will they have to do in 2013 and beyond to make sure that Williams remains affordable.
Given that it’s likely that this will be Michael Turner’s last year with the Falcons, as well as players like Dunta Robinson, Sam Baker, Jonathan Babineaux, and Peria Jerry needing strong 2012 performances to merit returning in 2013. Also throw in the fact that among the Falcons prospective free agents after the 2012 season, only William Moore is likely to land a significant extension (that’s assuming Grimes signs a long-term deal between now and then). If Ryan signs an extension, it’s likely that the team will be able to reduce his 2013 cap hit of $10 million to a much more palatable $6-8 million. I think with all those factors considered, Williams won’t be “too expensive” as is often portrayed.
Beyond the financial ramifications, I’m not sure the Falcons can afford to pass up on a player like Mario Williams. Similarly to John Abraham in 2006, who was a player in the prime of his career. Pass rushers such as Williams don’t come along too often. Williams, like Abraham is the type of guy that really changes how opponents face you. And I don’t think the Falcons can really be bothered by the idea of paying Williams like a franchise QB, when he’ll essentially be the franchise player of the defense going forward. He’ll become the cornerstone just like Abraham was for much of the past six seasons.
And without a top 10 pick, something that I’m sure the Falcons hope they won’t have for a very long time, the odds you are going to find a pass rusher that good is extremely low. Players like Williams, John Abraham, Jared Allen, and Julius Peppers very rarely hit the open market. Evidenced by the fact that guys such as Tamba Hali, DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, James Harrison, and LaMarr Woodley have all signed extensions with their respective teams. Who knows the next time the Falcons will get an opportunity to get a player of Williams caliber? And given the Falcons overwhelming need to improve their pass rush and defensive front, the time is ripe. The Falcons failed to jump on going after Jared Allen and Julius Peppers in past off-seasons, they cannot afford to pass up this opportunity with Williams.