This could all be moot if the Texans try to wrap up their superstar defender. And if the Patriots go about business the way they have for the majority of the past decade, we can't expect them to provide too many free-agent fireworks.
But it would not stun me one bit if the Patriots make a play for DE Mario Williams.
Bill Belichick is nothing if not opportunistic, and he knows that having one of the finest defensive talents potentially come free like this is a once-a-decade kind of thing he can't afford to pass up. All the signs are there: The Patriots are in great shape, in terms of salary cap, and they have a defense that made strides down the stretch (16.3 points per game allowed in the postseason) but need a jolt of talent up front.
The Patriots came within a few minutes of winning a Super Bowl, and they did so with only a few blue-chip players on defense. Vince Wilfork is excellent. Jerod Mayo is very good. Brandon Spikes could be there one day. Devin McCourty? Jury is still out. Same with Patrick Chung. There are complementary parts all over.
Williams would be Belichick's Richard Seymour, part two. Letting Seymour go was a rare Belichick mistake, and sources have said that the coach admits he hasn't been able to adequately replace his former D-lineman. Williams can play in almost any technique on the line and had a very good five-game showing in Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker, notching five sacks before suffering the season-ending triceps injury.
Williams is 27. He's a superstar. The injury carries little long-term concern. The Texans are way over the cap and have two young, very capable players in Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed who can rush the passer. The Texans' defense did not drop off after Williams' injury; instead, it continued to improve through the season. Much as they might want to keep Williams, in many ways a franchise cornerstone the past six years, they might not be able to. Reports have surfaced that the Texans seriously are torn and are starting to accept the idea that they might have to let Williams walk.
For the Patriots, this would not be an Adalius Thomas situation. Thomas was older (nearly 30 years old) when the Patriots signed him in 2007 than Williams (27 as of a few weeks ago) is now. Thomas was a system player in Baltimore, and Belichick thought he could be a perfect system fit in New England. Ultimately, he was a failure, and Thomas was cut when he stopped buying into the system in New England. Belichick can build a defense around Williams, and everyone who knows him knows he's a team-first winner, as well as a rare, game-changing talent. Thomas never was that player.
In Michael Holley's excellent book "Patriot Reign," written after the championship season of 2001, Belichick expressed his shock that he could win a title with the talent he had on that defense. This year's unit might have been slightly more gifted, but not by a wide margin. One difference is that this Patriots defense is a bit younger at most spots, and it could use something to solidify the group, someone to bring it all together.
Williams would be that player. Yes, the Patriots famously have not been huge players in free agency, save for that 2007 offseason. They have allowed some of their best players to walk, as Belichick has typically known exactly when to cut the cord with players who have peaked at their maximum utility. Want proof? That '07 team was hailed before the Super Bowl as maybe the best of all time, sitting at 18-0, but four years later Belichick coached an almost entirely different group (only eight carryover players) to the precipice of a championship.
Anyone who watched this strong but flawed Patriots team this past season knew what their shortcomings were: deep speed on offense and game-changing talent on defense, save for Wilfork. Signing Williams would not only give Belichick his finest defender since Seymour, but it also would make the rest of the defense better. Others would be freed up. And that wouldn't be the end of it, either. They once again are loaded with draft picks and would be almost sure to use at least one of their top four — two first-round picks, two seconds before they start wheeling and dealing, as they always do on Draft Day — to help out the rest of the group. A safety, a corner and a front-seven player would be nice.
But Williams would be the big catch. Would it be surprising? Naturally. The Patriots, though, have a window that is closing. Tom Brady remains an elite quarterback, but for how much longer? Wes Welker, who turns 31, is likely to be back, but he might only be at the top of his game for another few seasons. Other veteran pieces (Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Deion Branch) either will be at or close to the end of their runs with the team.
The Patriots have a reasonable regular-season schedule in 2012, but they do have four games against '11 playoff entrants — the Texans, Broncos and 49ers in New England and the Ravens in Baltimore. They also will have two games against the pesky Jets, the potentially improved Dolphins (if they land their franchise QB) and the Bills, who beat the Patriots once and temporarily held a three-score lead in the second game.
Belichick is not going to coach forever. Some people even speculated that he might have walked away had the Patriots won Super Bowl XLVI. That didn't happen, and he has to know the chances to win another one will be limited. They have to be more diverse on offense but, more importantly, improve the personnel on defense. By leaps and bounds.
Super Mario could help do that. I expect the Patriots to go all-in this offseason. What will it take? Maybe making Williams the highest-paid defender in the NFL. And though that would be quite the un-Patriot-like move, we might be talking about the rare defender who is worth that kind of payday. Don't be stunned if this seemingly odd pairing happens.