HOUSTON – Last week, Houston Texans rookie defensive end Mario Williams was given a key to the city, a crisp white cowboy hat and a box of Cowboy boots – new kicks straight out of the "Bonanza" casting closet. They were called gifts, but some might have construed them as peace offerings.
"I'm gonna have to frame that hat or something," Williams chuckled.
While admiring the boots at a table inside Reliant Stadium, Williams straightened two grotesquely swollen big toes. A pair of smashed toenails – common hazards for linemen – had been removed a few days earlier. Now the toes looked like two fleshy light bulbs popping out of his sandals. That meant only patience and pain would get those boots on his feet any time soon.
The picture was an appropriate metaphor. Booed by Texans fans on draft day for not having the panache of a Reggie Bush or the hometown flavor of a Vince Young, Williams appears poised to endure a rookie season in search of a tough fit. While Houston can give the No. 1 overall selection a key to the city – and the Texans can offer resounding support – finding the hardware to unlock the hearts of the locals will take a lot more effort.
The upcoming season, sure to be one of more growing pains for Houston, will require patience. Not only from Williams but also from the ever-critical fans who expect so much from him. The city is already doing its best to make up for an embarrassing welcome. All that is left is for the season-ticket holders to fall in line and let go of Bush and Young. There can be no wondering what could have been – even if Williams says he doesn't mind.
"I don't worry about that because there's no way to control it," Williams said. "I'm not worried about being compared to Reggie. I'm not worried about being compared to anybody."
It's the right thing to say. But it's not entirely true. Williams does have some names he can rattle off when you want to talk comparisons. He just prefers more favorable matches that he can aspire to be. Say, Bruce Smith or Reggie White from the old school. Or, if you want to discuss some of his contemporaries, Jevon Kearse, Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney. All five of those players made at least one Pro Bowl by their third NFL season, and all but Smith registered double-digit sacks as a rookie.
"He can be that good," said Texans defensive tackle Robaire Smith, who is counting on Williams' arrival to vastly improve his own pass rush along with the league's 31st-ranked defense. "When you watch him, it's like he's a mixture of Jevon and Julius. When we watch film of him, you can see a lot of his quickness and body movements are like Jevon. That's crazy, because he's like 40 or 50 pounds heavier than Jevon.
"I think he's going to start the season singled up with offensive linemen, but once he proves himself, those guards are going to be sliding [over] to help. And that's going to free us up inside in the pass rush."
Williams won't be alone. Houston's defensive line as a whole should see steep improvement with the shift to a 4-3 alignment. Anthony Weaver, who was signed to play end in the 3-4, has been moved inside and should start next to Smith. Jason Babin moves back to end – his natural position where he was a terror in college. Interestingly, the personnel give the Texans the ability to switch in and out of the 3-4 when a game necessitates it.
Babin can play end or outside linebacker, while Williams, Weaver and Smith can switch in and out at tackle and end depending on what front Houston is in. The Texans also have good potential in former first-round pick Travis Johnson and Antwan Peek, who was given a first-round tender this offseason.
So who's the key to solidifying the group? It will likely end up being Williams.
"We're asking a little more from him than a normal guy," Houston's first-year head coach Gary Kubiak said. "We're pushing him right along quickly. He's been a starter since the day he walked into this locker room. That's our expectation for him. But as I told him, 'Just do your job. We've got to put a good team around you.' "
"I was around Neil Smith when he was getting after it pretty good [in Denver], and those guys, their presence on your team is just exceptional. I'm expecting the same from this kid."
While Williams has remained a controversial pick – one that "has been debated and debated in this city," as new general manager Rick Smith put it – it's not all about passing on talents like Bush and Young. In general, taking a defensive end with the No. 1 pick is an uncomfortable proposition because rookie ends rarely make a dramatic impact immediately and don't engender patience from a fan base. The situation has only happened twice in the last 30 drafts, producing a Hall of Famer in Bruce Smith (1985) and something a bit more mediocre in Courtney Brown (2000).
But for a team that is 0-8 against the Colts and is building to compete in an AFC loaded with offensive talent, a potentially dominant end like Williams is almost a necessary risk. Particularly after last year's top defensive rookie, Shawne Merriman, showcased the value of a game-changing pass rusher against Indianapolis. And unlike Merriman, Williams projects to being a player who can provide pressure regardless of scheme.
"When we brought him in for a visit [before the draft], there were no questions about him," defensive coordinator Richard Smith said of Williams. "We said, 'Is he big enough? Yeah. Is he fast enough? Yeah. Is he strong enough? Yes. Does he have athletic ability? Yes. Does he have good character? Yes.' There was no doubt about this guy having what it took to be a special player."
"What makes you good is strength and time – time being repetition," defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz said. "Mario just needs to have exposure. He's got it in his body. What we have to do is accelerate his mental concepts."
For the last month, Karmelowicz and Smith have hammered Williams with lessons to refine how he uses his hands to defeat pass-blocking techniques. Despite his 14½ sacks as a junior at North Carolina State last year, Williams appeared to lack polish at times – particularly early in the season when he struggled to stay on his feet and maintain his speed against cut blocks. That was a major reason why he only produced one sack in his first four games.
"Pass blocking is totally different in the NFL than what it was in college," Williams said. "You have tackles that keep their hands inside, close to their bodies. They'll even use their upfield arm as a decoy. In college, that upfield arm was the one they always tried to punch you with. It's not like that here. They'll give you a decoy with one [hand and then] punch you with the other. … There's a lot more technique here, and a lot more ways to be fundamentally sound."
Williams has slightly over three months to add that polish. And then Houston opens the season against teams with Pro Bowl quarterbacks (Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper) and teams with improved offenses (Washington and Dallas).
"The defense is going to be a lot better, and he's going to be a big part," Robaire Smith said. "… I think he's going to get it done and be a great player. He works, and you wouldn't even know [he was drafted first overall] from the way he acts. Whenever we make jokes and say little things about him being the top pick, he's always like, 'Stop it, stop it, don't talk about it.'
"He just wants to fit right in with the rest of the guys."