Free Agent Scouting Report: Mario Williams (DE)
The Miami Dolphins were the first team that All-Pro defensive end Mario Williams decided to visit after he was unceremoniously released by the Buffalo Bills on Tuesday. While he is still scheduled to meet with several teams before free agency officially begins on March 9th, this is a significant development in the Dolphins’ offseason plans. Inside the organization, it is likely that Williams is seen as a potential contingency plan to replace either of Miami’s star pass-rushers, Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake. Vernon was transition tagged last week, which effectively allows a different club to box out Miami’s cap-strapped front office by overpaying for Vernon, forcing the Dolphins into letting him go. Similarly, Wake may still become a late cap-casualty, as he’s a 34 year old coming off of an Achilles injury. The team could walk away from one or both of the sack-artists due to monetary concerns, making a talent like Mario Williams all the more enticing.
Mario Williams was drafted out of North Carolina State University by the Houston Texans with the 1st overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft. Williams lived up to the lofty expectations; he became acclimated to the pro-game quickly, starting all 16 games and totaling 4.5 sacks. With a full season under his belt, Williams quickly established himself as an elite pass-rusher with the Houston Texans, totaling 43.5 sacks and 2 Pro Bowl nominations in the four proceeding seasons. But, 13 games into the 2010 season, Williams was put on injured reserve after a serious groin injury. In 2011, Williams tore his pectoral muscle after notching his 5th sack in Week 5, ending a second straight season with an injured reserve designation… in a contract year. Due to injury concerns, a high asking price, and the presence of some no-name prospect by the name of Justin James Watt, the Texans decided to move on from the accomplished veteran in 2012.
Williams wasn’t on the market for long; the Buffalo Bills signed him to a 6-year $100 million contract with just under half of it guaranteed. The monster contract made Mario Williams the highest paid defensive player in NFL history at the time. Shockingly, Williams more or less lived up to the astronomical billing, posting the finest three year stretch of his career from 2012-2014. In 2012 he got to the quarterback 10.5 times, 13 times in 2013, and 14 times in 2014. The three year stretch also included his first and only First Team All-Pro nomination and an additional two Pro-Bowl appearances. When head coach Doug Marrone suddenly resigned after the 2014 season, Williams also lost Jim Schwartz, the defensive coordinator with which he was most comfortable. The Bills aptly replaced Doug Marrone with defensive genius Rex Ryan, and it looked like all would stay the course with the Bills’ top-5 defense. Ironically, the defense softened under Ryan due in great part to Williams’ decline. Mario Williams is an All-Pro talent as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense, but Rex Ryan employs a base 3-4 defense. Williams moved to outside linebacker, butted heads with Ryan often about his role within the system, and became a locker room pariah. Due to his poor systemic fit, the disrespect to his coaches, his relatively advanced age, his massive cap-hit, and his disappointing locker room leadership, Mario Williams was released from the Bills on Tuesday.
Mario Williams was a premiere talent at the 4-3 defensive end position as recently as 2014, and it’s likely that 2015 was just a blip on an otherwise impressive radar. Williams’ greatest strength lies in his athleticism and physicality. At 6’6” and 292 pounds, he terrorizes offensive linemen with his imposing strength, yet maintains the agility to get to quarterbacks swiftly. Game tape from his 3.5 sack game against the 2014 Dolphins showcases his ridiculous athletic prowess. Take a look at the following plays, you know, if you feel like reliving Ryan Tannehill’s nightmares:
In this play, Williams embarrasses the O-lineman, taking full advantage of his poor technique. The All-Pro uses both his speed and refined technique, knocking the blocker’s arms away and allowing him to maintain forward momentum without having to break stride. Williams makes it so that Ryan Tannehill never has a chance to let the play develop, sacking the quarterback before his 2nd read.
In this one, Williams elects to use his behemoth size and strength to bull rush his blocker. He absolutely bullies the poor man, pushing him so far back into the pocket that it collapses virtually instantaneously. The result, like many plays before it, is a sack on Ryan Tannehill well before he can go through his progressions.
In addition to being a dominant physical force, Williams possesses keen mental acuity as a 4-3 defensive end as well. His technique, while not stellar, has been enough to complement his physical gifts to great effect. His awareness, which has greatly improved throughout the course of his decade long career, is well above average. This play against the Green Bay Packers in 2014 is a solid example of his sharp vision and excellent awareness:
This play took place at the end of a game in which Aaron Rodgers and the high-octane Packers’ offense was looking to make a game winning drive against the Bills. After Rodgers snaps the ball, Williams makes a quick break off the line of scrimmage, giving his blocker everything he can handle. While rendered unable to take Rodgers down, Williams directs his arm to create an opportunity to knock the ball out of the MVP’s hands. He uses his outstanding vision to force the fumble, which results in a safety, and effectively ends the Packers’ ability to make a comeback. The Bills won that game 21-13. Williams’ elite athleticism, fierce pursuit, and effective technique have made him a terror on the edge over the last decade, and the Dolphins are smart in doing their due diligence.
Mario Williams undoubtedly has the potential to be a difference maker on the right defense. However, there are a number of concerns that have risen based on his mediocre performance last year. First, the former first overall pick is 31 years old, and many wonder how much he has left in the tank. Often relying on physical abilities, the veteran’s style of play may not age as well as that of technique driven pass-rushers like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who are still capable of rushing the passer well into their 30s. In addition to being past his prime, Williams lacks the versatility that teams prefer in an every down player. He struggled mightily to adjust to Rex Ryan’s complex 3-4 system, and is far better as a 4-3 defensive end than he is as a 3-4 outside linebacker. It was apparent that some of the responsibilities of a 3-4 linebacker, like dropping into pass coverage, were too foreign to the longtime pass-rusher. While Williams does not struggle against the run, he is far better suited bunkering down, hand in the turf, chasing after the quarterback as a 4-3 defensive end.
Williams’ greatest weakness, his poor leadership, was not apparent until last year. Williams was extremely vocal on his criticism of his coaching staff and the system they employed. As discussed previously, Williams was a poor fit for Ryan’s scheme, and it is rumored that he had a great deal of trouble adjusting to and learning the playbook. Rather than criticizing his own play and trying to improve, Mario Williams went full Terrell Owens, blasting his coaches as the culprit behind his poor production. By mid-season, Williams was already becoming a pariah in the locker room, butting heads with his coaching staff, and causing conflict in a where it was certainly not necessary. By the end of the year, it was abundantly clear that Williams was phoning it in. He often took plays off, see one of the many instances here:
Williams puts in minimal effort against the Washington Redskins here, where he looks totally uninterested in getting to the quarterback, Kirk Cousins. He simply moves from side to side, making no football move to try and break free from the engaged blocker. He makes absolutely no progress in getting past the line of scrimmage, like zero Kelvin levels of absolute zero. The play results in a 77 yard TD that put the game out of reach. There are dozens of plays like this one over the course of the last month of the season, as the Bills were mathematically eliminated from post season contention and Williams realized he was likely going to be cut at the end of the most disappointing year of his career.
It is very difficult to gauge Mario Williams’ value in terms of a contract. The interest around the league is extremely high, as his potential to improve a defense’s pass-rush is astronomical. However, his age and attitude problem may prompt teams to incentivize the contract, or force Williams to sign a one-year, “prove it” type deal. Ultimately, I think that his undeniable talent and production will lead to a lucrative, albeit short term contract. I think that the guaranteed money will end up being less than what Williams is seeking, but the overall contract to be at least $10 million per year. The best comparison I have for the position that Williams is in is the contract that Demarcus Ware signed 2 years ago with the Denver Broncos. Both were marquis pass-rushers just past their prime that had some concerns as to their long-term value. While Ware is undeniably a better player and teammate, I think that Williams will sign a very similar contract to Ware’s 3 year, $30 million contract with the Broncos.
How He Would Fit in Miami:
If the Dolphins decide to move on from either Olivier Vernon or Cameron Wake, then Mario Williams would be the perfect option to replace their production. Of the three, Williams is arguably the most proven talent right now, and may even end up being the least expensive. One thing is certain, the Dolphins need a guy that can immediately make quarterbacks’ lives miserable sooner rather than later. While there are certainly some concerns about the veteran’s leadership and motor, his potential to turn a good defensive line into every offensive coordinator’s nightmare, should be enough to force the hand of at least one general manager. That executive could be Mike Tannenbaum, considering Miami’s significant increase in cap space after reworking Ndamukong Suh’s deal and parting ways with Greg Jennings. His fit in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s 4-3 scheme, coupled with the respect that head coach Adam Gase has around the league, make Mario Williams a prime candidate to terrorize quarterbacks alongside Ndamukong Suh if Olivier Vernon or Cam Wake are evicted from South Beach in the coming days.
Note from the Editor:
Multiple reports are indicating that Williams is seeking in the $10m/year range. The Miami Dolphins are very much in the mix for Williams, and it seems he could replace Olivier Vernon as the team’s edge rushing presence on the right side of the defensive line.
We will update this page with any information regarding Williams and the Miami Dolphins.