Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest the doings of the first 24 hours or so of the NFL's always frenzied free agency period...
• Ten years ago next month, amid much fanfare, the Buffalo Bills pulled the trigger on the big Drew Bledsoe trade, acquiring the former No. 1 overall pick and star quarterback from their division rival Patriots and giving him a rock star's welcome to town. Bledsoe, who was only 30 at the time, was hailed as the franchise's new savior and the deal seemed to herald that the Bills were back after enduring a couple of non-playoff seasons.
But it didn't quite work out that way. Bledsoe played three uneven seasons in Buffalo, the Bills never finished better than 9-7 in that span, and a decade later the franchise is still trying trying to get back to the postseason, with a now NFL-worst 12-year playoff-less streak intact.
Enter Mario Williams, the ex-Texans pass rusher and No. 1 overall pick in 2006 who represents the biggest, boldest move made by Buffalo since Bledsoe arrived. With a six-year, $100 million contract in tow that make him the highest paid defender in the NFL, Williams will be -- forgive me -- billed as the team's newest savior, a difference-maker with the kind of talent who can at least lead Buffalo out of the wilderness and back to football glory.
We'll see. I like Williams as a player, and it's incredibly rare for an elite pass rusher to reach the free-agent market in the prime of his career. He's only 27, has proven he can rush the passer no matter where he's lined up, and by all accounts is a high-character, good-teammate type of player who will never give the Bills front office a single reason to worry when it comes to how he handles his new windfall.
But there's also this: In the five full seasons he played in Houston, the Texans never made the playoffs, and finished with a winning record only once, at 9-7 in 2009. So his difference-making is at least debatable. In fairness, last season, when Williams shifted to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 formation, he was on his way to a monster year, racking up five sacks in Houston's first five games. But he tore a pectoral muscle in that fifth game and was lost for the season. Rather than wilting without their best defensive player, the Texans survived and even thrived in his absence, going 10-6 to claim the AFC South title and the first playoff berth in the 10-year history of the franchise. Even won a playoff game once they got to the dance.
Clearly Williams was part of the solution in Houston and not part of the problem, and his unselfish shift to outside linebacker helped kickstart the Texans' 2011 drive to the playoffs in a big way. But you can at least see the point that he was proven to be anything but indispensable in Houston's defense, and if you're the game's highest paid defender, shouldn't that come with some degree of indispensability? In addition, the bottom line says his sack total has decreased in four consecutive years: From his career-high 14 in 2007, to 12 in 2008, to nine in 2009, to 8.5 in 2010, to five in last year's injury-shortened season.
Williams, who has totaled 53 sacks in his first six NFL seasons, is an undeniable talent and any team in the league would covet him in its lineup. He's exactly what the doctor and new Buffalo defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt ordered this offseason, because the Bills in 2011 ranked third to last in the NFL with just 29 sacks. Unbelievably, 10 of those were recorded in one late-October victory against Washington, meaning that Buffalo got to the opposing quarterback just 19 times in its other 15 games last season. The Bills also gave up the third-most points in the league last year, an AFC-worst 434.
Williams joins a Bills defense that is switching back to a 4-3 formation under Wannstedt, so he can return to the defensive end position he manned so superbly in Houston. With impressive 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus and the underrated Kyle Williams at defensive tackle, Mario Williams could help elevate Buffalo's defensive line to an elite level, inspiring a significant improvement on that side of the ball in 2012 and perhaps keeping the Bills in playoff contention for longer than last year's hopeful 5-2 start, which dissolved into a 6-10, last-place finish in the AFC East.
But be wary of tagging Williams with the savior label, perhaps especially in Buffalo, where the culture change needed to reverse a dozen years of failure is still very much a work in progress. You'd be crazy to not want a pass rusher like Super Mario on your team, but Bills fans have been teased by the promise of a turnaround season several times over the course of their lost decade-plus, and they know by now to be cautious in their expectations.
Make no mistake, Williams is an extremely good get for the Bills. But like Bledsoe, his fellow No. 1 overall pick before him, he may not be the difference-maker he's being portrayed as. As long as that's understood, it's okay to let the fanfare build in Buffalo.
• It really is a shocking thought that Houston has come so far on defense in the past few years that the loss of Williams isn't some devastating blow it can't recover from. As noted above, the Texans not only endured without Williams in the lineup for most of 2011, they won like never before. How many teams can lose a player who is arguably the best in franchise history and not be decimated by the defection? Especially when that player is still very much in his prime?
While once, not all that long ago, the lack of enough pass rush was the Texans' Achilles heel -- they finished 21st or lower in the league in sacks seven times in the eight-year span of 2003-2010 -- Houston jumped all the way up to sixth in that category last season, to go with a No. 2 overall ranking on defense. Even without Williams for all but five games in 2011, the Texans had defensive play-makers galore, with linebackers Brian Cushing, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, and defensive end J.J. Watt all coming to Houston via recent drafts.
The hiring of veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was obviously the biggest key to improvement in Houston, but don't overlook the free-agent signing of cornerback Johnathan Joseph last year, and how his strong coverage skills contributed to the effectiveness of the pass rush.
So don't weep for the Texans. They would have loved to keep Williams, making the defending AFC South champions that much stronger on the side of the ball that vexed them for so long. But they're still the team to beat in the division, and they proved last year that they can play dominant defense even without one of the game's elite pass rushers.
• That's quite a ride Kyle Orton and Jason Campbell have been on. They started last season as the No. 1 quarterbacks on a pair of AFC West contenders (Denver and Oakland), and now they're both veteran backups in the NFC, with Orton signing on to be Tony Romo's insurance policy in Dallas and Campbell agreeing to be No. 2 in Chicago behind Jay Cutler. And don't forget that Orton took that little intra-division late-season side trip to Kansas City, where he helped interim head coach Romeo Crennel land the full-time gig.
Both Orton and Campbell are very serviceable quarterbacks, but I realize that's damning them with the faintest of praise. Still, with teams like Miami, Cleveland, the Jets, Kansas City and Denver in need of some starting quarterback competition -- not to mention the 49ers, who haven't even re-signed their starter yet -- I'm a little surprised both Orton and Campbell opted to accept clear-cut backup jobs so early in the free agency period.
• I know one team that was probably thrilled to see the Bucs throw $55 million-plus at Chargers free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson: The St. Louis Rams. With the Rams now picking at No. 6 in the first round after the RG3 trade with Washington, No. 5 Tampa Bay landing itself a big receiver in free agency would seem to take the Bucs out of the picture for Oklahoma State Justin Blackmon. The Rams covet Blackmon, and might now only have to sweat out him getting past the No. 4 Browns, who could still need a quarterback come draft night.
If St. Louis gets Blackmon, who is believed to be the player it would have taken at No. 2 if it was forced to sit tight, at No. 6, the deal with the Redskins will go from beyond tremendous to stupendous. Or something like that.
• All that "Reggie Wayne to follow Peyton Manning wherever he goes" chatter was fun while it lasted, but it went right out the window the minute the Colts, perhaps for sentimental reasons, showed Wayne some green. So much for getting the old gang back together. I guess the 2010 Colts really are in the history books at this point.
And tell me this: New Colts general manager Ryan Grigson spoke about Wayne being "one of the greatest receivers to don the horseshoe'' at the news conference announcing Wayne's re-signing. I don't quibble with that, but when did "the horseshoe'' become so widely tossed around as a synonym for the Colts organization? In all honesty, I don't think I ever heard it used much at all before this year's Peyton Manning breakup. Catchy, though.
• Even this early in the free agency process, my eyes tend to glaze over as the stream of Monopoly-money deals get reported from around the NFL. But when I heard about the eight-year, $132 million contract extension the Lions gave receiver Calvin Johnson on Wednesday, my only thought was: The guy's worth it.
Not in a cosmic, we-all-have-our-priorities-in-order sort of way, because that much money to play football is beyond comprehension. But if you're going to pay a football player some ridiculous and lavish salary, Megatron would be my choice for that distinction. The guy's a beast on the field, and from all indications, he's even better off it.
• Raise your hand if you saw the Vikings' John Carlson signing coming? Not me. Not at five years and $25 million, with $11 million guaranteed. That's a hefty chunk of change for a tight end who missed all of last season with shoulder surgery, and who hasn't really matched the production he amassed as a Seattle rookie in 2008.
Carlson, the ex-Notre Dame tight end, will now join fellow ex-Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota. And for that kind of money, I'd have to think that Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper, who also starred at Notre Dame and once played for the Vikings, would come out of retirement at age 60.
• Last month, to set up the NFL's offseason, I did a list of 10 key questions from around the league, and one of them asked which four free-agent receivers come with buyer-beware labels? I went with Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe, San Diego's Vincent Jackson, and Buffalo's Stevie Johnson -- playmakers all, but troublemakers of varying degrees at times during their career.
Apparently they're not as risky as I presumed, because DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson and Johnson have all hit it rich with either contract extensions or new deals, and Bowe isn't likely to be far behind. In fact, receivers getting paid is pretty much the theme of the league's offseason/free agency period so far, with one big deal after another rolling in. Maybe only Randy Moss was in the bargain bin so far, and after his 2010 season we all understand why that was.
Wonder what Wes Welker is thinking these days, wearing the Patriots' franchise tag not so comfortably around his neck?