"I think he could play at the defensive end spot. He could play outside linebacker. He could be up. He could be down. I think there will be times in our third down package where he's down over a guard, down over a center... We want to get the bullseye off him and move him around. We want to dictate to teams that if they're going to deal with Mario, they're going to have to find him first." - Mike Pettine on Mario Williams, circa May 27
Mario Williams remains the highest-paid defender in NFL history, entering the second year on a six-year, $96 million contract with a max value of $100 million and $50 million in guarantees. He's already pocketed $33.5 million of that from the Bills, with another $6.5 million in base salary coming via the 17-week NFL regular season. Buffalo made Williams a very rich dude last March, and in return, they've received one year of a pretty good football player.
Struggling with a highly-publicized wrist injury that ultimately required surgery during the Bills' Week 8 bye, Williams recorded just 3.5 sacks in the team's first seven games, and was often invisible. He had slow stretches after the wrist injury had been dealt with, but was also a much more effective performer, registering seven sacks - including a hat trick on Andrew Luck in a road loss to Indianapolis - and two forced fumbles in the team's final nine games.
Let's keep things in perspective here: Williams recorded 10.5 sacks in a season in which he was not completely healthy. Sure, that was only the 17th-highest total in the NFL last season, but it was also the highest single-season sack total for a Bill since Aaron Schobel put up 14 way back in 2006. The Bills wanted instant impact when they pursued Williams on the free agent market, and that's what they had last season.
The problem, of course, is that it wasn't enough of an impact; it wasn't enough production. Williams was good, but he wasn't great. Buffalo needed Williams' level of production, there's no doubt - but more importantly, they needed a great football player. We know Williams is capable of being a great football player, and while there were flashes of greatness a year ago, he didn't consistently hit that plateau.
Now, Williams will be playing for his third brand new defensive coordinator in three years: Wade Phillips in 2011, Dave Wannstedt in 2012 and now Mike Pettine in 2013. The former defensive coordinator of the New York Jets, Pettine brings a system not dissimilar to the one Williams played in under Phillips - a fact he has pointed out in interviews this off-season - that should make life easier on him, but also makes his role more vague.
Playing under Wannstedt, Williams split reps between left and right defensive end, lining up almost exclusively over an offensive tackle. That made it easy for teams to find him pre-snap and throw bodies his way; that attention opened up opportunities for his fellow defensive linemen when Williams could beat most or all of those extra blockers, but his presence did not elevate his teammates' production the way some expected. Pettine's scheme should help in that regard, as we're likely to see Williams all over the field this season.
Scheme can only do so much, however. The Bills need Williams to be a better football player regardless of his role. They need him to be the type of defender that is not just productive in his own right, but very clearly demonstrates that his presence raises the level of play of those around him. He is paid to be that type of franchise cornerstone. A season like last year, while acceptable for many pro football players, would be a disappointment for Williams.
Like many of Buffalo's very talented defenders, it's all sitting out in front of Williams, ready for the taking. All he needs to do is consistently play to his immense potential on a consistent basis. That, far more than an increase in sacks, would help a struggling and re-building Bills defense immensely. Buffalo's defense will run through Williams; what remains to be seen is how far Williams can carry it himself.