A unique opportunity to jump-start the Bucs pass rush has recently presented itself, in the form of veteran defensive end Mario Williams. Williams was cut by the Bills on Tuesday as a cap-casualty after an un-inspired 2015 campaign that saw him record just 19 tackles and five sacks. Williams was a poor fit in new coach Rex Ryan’s defense and found himself dropping into coverage far more often than he should have. The Bucs would be wise to consider the context behind Williams’ poor 2015 season and make the decision to pursue him when free agency begins on March 7th.
It’s no secret what the Bucs biggest weakness is. The team desperately needs multiple players that can hurry or sack the quarterback on a consistent basis, and hasn’t had one since Simeon Rice. Williams certainly doesn’t represent a one-stop fix in the way that Simeon did when he was acquired, but he could get them halfway there. Williams is just two years removed from a 14.5 sack season, and three removed from a 13 sack campaign. Either of those figures – or anything in the range of them – would help the Bucs defense considerably.
Investing in Williams is polarizing for a few reasons, but primarily because his alleged concerns draw comparisons to former Buc and current Bengal, Michael Johnson. The Bucs spent big money on Johnson before the 2014 season to remedy the same problem that ails them now, but were doomed by injuries and the not-so-shocking revelation that Johnson was terribly miscast as a guy to consistently bring down quarterbacks. Therein lies the reason that comparisons between Williams and Johnson are unfair: Williams is infinitely more gifted at sacking quarterbacks. In fact, Williams had more sacks in the pre-Rex 2014 season (14.5) than Johnson has had in his previous three combined. In a wholly ineffective 2015 for Williams he still had as many sacks as Johnson did during his 2015 season (five).
Along with fears that Williams is another Michael Johnson, I see lots of concerns over Williams’ age. I find this to be equally unfair. Williams is 31, but has no recent injury concerns and only missed one game in his four seasons with Buffalo. Defensive end is a position that can age gracefully and in recent years we’ve seen lots of ends deemed too old to re-sign that went on to have success past 30 with different teams. The Super Bowl featured two examples of that with Demarcus Ware and Jared Allen, and the Packers managed to buy low on Julius Peppers who in turn gave them 10.5 sacks in 2015. Even 36 year old Dwight Freeney was able to contribute 8 sacks to the Cardinals last year. As it pertains to sports, age is just a number.
Another reason to feel comfortable with signing Williams lies in something he was criticized for doing. Williams was outspoken during the 2015 season about his role and directly called out his coach. While calling out a head coach is not exactly a great look, it can be something worth analyzing from a free agent buyer perspective. By speaking out and opening himself up for criticism Williams proved that he isn’t comfortable with merely showing up on Sundays and collecting a pay-check. The man clearly wants to contribute to his team, but in the role that he’s best suited in. This is a critical question that the Bucs have failed to accurately answer in recent years during the free agent evaluation process; whether guys are coming to play football, or for the beaches and guaranteed money.
Mario Williams will have plenty of interest. He told me he's ready to produce for any team wanting a player with a fire lit in his belly.
— Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) March 1, 2016
Since the season ended Williams has addressed concerns over work ethic and motivation, and has reiterated multiple times that he has something to prove in 2016 and beyond for whichever team signs him. He’s talked about a desire to win and says that he has a chip on his shoulder. But if his words aren’t enough to abnegate your fears, consider the possibility of incentivizing Williams’ contract with something like a ten sack bonus. The team benefits from a further motivated player, and the player gets extra money for something he nearly achieved in the worst season of his career. A win-win, and something that the Bucs have done before with both Mark Dominik and Jason Licht.
Due to past failures, there’s an argument that the Bucs may shy away from paying a veteran defensive end, but I think that this is misguided. Jason Licht and company have proven that they have a pitching mentality with free agents and are able to quickly move on to the next guy. Last offseason the team cut Michael Johnson and brought 33 year old Trent Cole to One Buc for a visit on the first day of free agency. The team even kicked the tires on world-renowned-terrible-human-being Greg Hardy in an effort to spark the pass rush. On and off-the-field context considered, Williams is a much more attractive option than both of those players, so logic says that the Bucs will at least give him a phone call. Buccaneer fans should hope that a private jet-ride sponsored by the Glazers quickly follows that phone call.