Williams clearly biggest FA prize

Many were shocked when the Texans drafted Mario Williams No. 1 overall in 2006. Williams avoided the franchise tag on Monday and this time no one will question his place in the pecking order.

Nearly 50 months ago, the Houston Texans opted to pick defensive end Mario Williams over Heisman Trophy tailback Reggie Bush with the initial selection in the 2006 draft. And many pundits, including this one, chastised then-Texans general manager Charley Casserly for the choice.

Six years later, there's plenty of crow to go around.

Traded to Miami last summer after a disappointing tenure in New Orleans, Bush had a pretty nice 2011 season, cracking the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time in his career. On Monday, though, Williams was poised to become perhaps the highest-paid defender in NFL history.

As predicted by most, the six-year veteran Williams was not among the 21 players purged from the NFL's unrestricted free agent banks on Monday, as Houston management opted not to saddle him with the franchise designation. And so peg Williams, just a few hours after the franchise-tag deadline expired, and eight days shy of the official start to the league year and the green-flag dropping on the free agent spending race, as the guy at the head of the unfettered class.

Hands down, Williams is the top free agent available. Big spenders with the deepest pockets like the Cowboys, plus this year's best positioned in terms of available salary cap space -- the Buccaneers, Chiefs and Seahawks among them -- will race for the right to make Williams one of the NFL's highest-paid defenders.

It's easy, this time around, to not denigrate the Texans' brass, as placing the franchise marker on Williams would have cost the team roughly $22 million against its 2012 salary cap total.

Houston could have reduced that number, of course, by subsequently striking a long-term deal with Williams, but word Monday evening was that the two sides never came close, and that the defensive end, enamored by the riches that await him in the free agent market, was not inclined to complete an extension. Williams previously suggested he might grant the Texans a hometown discount of sorts, but the week and change that remained as of Monday's franchise deadline won't likely be enough time for the Texans to find the cash in the coffers to reel Williams back to Houston.

With Williams limited to five games in 2011 because of a pectoral injury, Houston still rated statistically as the league's No. 2 defense. The Texans still collected 44 sacks, and only five teams had more last season. And the team has retained defensive chief Wade Phillips, a master of the 3-4 front, and a man who transformed the mindset and the numbers of a defense that only a season earlier was 30th and registered just 30 sacks.

Oh, yeah, the Texans won the AFC South in 2011, and garnered the first postseason berth in franchise history.

In the five previous seasons, with Williams starting an average of 15.4 games, Houston was never in the top 10 defensively, and was only once above 22nd overall in the league.

None of that, however, will detract from Williams' attractiveness if the Texans can't consummate a deal with him before March 13, and he hits the open market.

In a league that has become all about the pass, free agency will include guys who can throw the ball (Matt Flynn, Kyle Orton and perhaps Peyton Manning); can catch it (Vincent Jackson, Marques Colston and Reggie Wayne); and can knock it down (Cortland Finnegan and Tracy Porter).

All of those veterans -- along with players such as guard Carl Nicks, center Chris Myers, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, and others -- will be pursued. But the chase for Williams figures to maybe attract the most potential suitors.

Certainly he will attract the teams willing to pay a king's ransom.

Despite six seasons of NFL tenure, Williams is only 27 years old, and is clearly in his prime, if completely recovered from his injury. He had five sacks in his first five outings of 2011, even though playing in a new defensive scheme. In that short time, he garnered the Wade Phillips Seal of Approval as a 3-4 rush linebacker, though his most effective position is arguably 4-3 end. The expectations are that Williams will be most chased by 4-3 teams, reportedly his preference, but teams no matter the scheme will try to get into the hunt.

The takeaway from Monday was that, even with five kickers and a punter included in the 21 players tagged with the franchise marker, the restrictive moves made by teams across the NFL thinned the unrestricted market a bit.

But the pool remains a pretty deep one at some positions and, while the pursuit of talent won't be quite as hectic as a year ago, when the lockout compressed the action and fueled a crazy spending spree, big money will be thrown around.

And lots of it will be directed at Williams, who averaged nearly 10 sacks per year in his first five seasons in the league.

Even though the consensus was that Williams would not be tagged -- even after the Texans reached a contract extension with tailback Arian Foster to essentially free up the franchise designation -- high-ranking executives from two clubs acknowledged to The Sports Xchange early Monday evening that they monitored Houston's move closely throughout the day to track the end's status. Said one: "We held our breath until the last minute."

Now it looks like everyone can exhale. At least until they prepare for the Williams Sweepstakes about to begin.

The talent pool in free agency has something, or someone, for just about everyone, but the chase for the sack-happy end is a game in which a lot of teams want in.

This time, it's Super Mario, who's the prize.

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