AFC East: Bills sign Mario Williams

The Buffalo Bills and free-agent pickup Mario Williams already have become trash-talk targets. And the first jab comes from -- surprise! -- the AFC East rival New York Jets.

New York starting left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson sent a congratulatory tweet Thursday afternoon to Williams, who just signed the richest contract for a defensive player, worth $100 million over six years.

"Congrats to Mario, now he has to face us twice a year. I like our odds. Go Jets!" Ferguson tweeted Thursday.

It was a good-natured jab at Williams, but a jab nonetheless. New York did sweep Buffalo last season.

Ferguson will see plenty of Williams. The Jets and Bills play twice a year.
Perhaps aside from Peyton Manning, the Buffalo Bills have landed the biggest fish in the 2012 free-agency pool. The Bills have agreed to sign defensive end Mario Williams -- a high-impact player at a high-impact position -- to a contract reported to be worth $100 million over six years, with an eye-popping $50 million guaranteed. A couple of things to note:

Small-market survival: Yes, the fact Williams A) made his first free-agent visit to Buffalo, and B) signed with the Bills is surprising. The Bills are not a team that fits the stereotype of an enticing free-agent destination. However, this is the NFL, not Major League Baseball or the NBA. Competitive balance and parity, fueled by a cap and equally shared billions of television revenue, allow for this to happen. Of course, the first prime free agent in NFL history, Reggie White, went to the Packers.

Mario Williams
Brett Davis/US PresswireMario Williams' new deal with the Buffalo Bills includes $50 million in guarantees.
Green Bay and Buffalo, places not known to be geographically desirable, can financially attract free agents as easily as bigger markets can. And, with a new CBA in place for the next decade, this trend can continue.

Shown the money: As to the financial package, Williams will receive $25 million in the first year of the contract and $53 million total in the first three years of the deal.

Pay no attention to the $100 million; that is for show. Indeed, the fact the contract has a sixth year on it has little true value to the Bills or to Williams, as the CBA mandates that bonuses can be prorated for only five years.
However, pay close attention to the reported $50 million guarantee. That is the "real money" of this contract, and it is eye-popping. In fact, it may prove more valuable than the $60 million guarantee given to Calvin Johnson by the Lions, as Johnson had two years remaining on his contract for a potential $50 million.

According to an NFL source, half of the $50 million is fully guaranteed for skill and injury while the other $25 million is only guaranteed for injury initially, converting to full skill guarantees later in the contract. The reason for this, the source said, is that the NFL requires teams to fully fund -- meaning placing the money in escrow -- skill guarantees, having no such requirement for injury guarantees. For a small-market team such as Buffalo, Williams and his agents were not going to press on the up-front guarantee.

A $50 million guarantee for Williams would zoom past the highest guarantee for a defensive player, that of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers received a $42 million guarantee from the Bears in 2010. Williams will now sign a deal that is 19 percent more than that of Peppers, the next-highest number. Pretty impressive.

There will be more analysis when all the numbers are in, but it appears the Bills have shown Williams the money and were successful in not letting him leave Buffalo without a contract. Parity lives.

Andrew Brandt, a former vice president with the Packers, is a contributor to
The Buffalo Bills made the biggest splash so far in free agency by signing former Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract. Williams is a game-changer who will greatly improve Buffalo’s anemic pass rush.

Here are four questions and answers on the signing:

1. Does this make Buffalo a contender?

Too early to say. Free agency just started, and the draft is next month. A lot of teams will get better, and some will get worse by the end of April. Williams is a big difference-maker. But right now, the New England Patriots are still my early pick to win the AFC East. The Williams signing makes perfect sense, but the Bills have work to do at left tackle, receiver, cornerback and overall depth. Second place in the AFC East is wide-open. With the way things are going with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins -- unless Peyton Manning saves them -- the Bills are making a strong push to end their 13-year playoff drought. But let's see what happens the rest of this offseason.

2. How good is the defense with Williams?

Buffalo's defense was ranked No. 26 last year. So there is a long way to elite status. But Williams solves two of Buffalo's biggest defensive issues: He improves the pass rush and sets the edge against the run. I don't know who Buffalo's other defensive end will be. But with Williams, Marcell Dareus and a healthy Kyle Williams, it's safe to say the Bills will have one of the league's more dominant defensive lines. Buffalo will not be pushed around this season, and I like the switch to a 4-3 defense. If the Bills make additional improvements at linebacker and corner and everyone stays healthy, they have the potential to be a top-10 or top-12 defense next season.

3. Was $100 million too much?

This question will linger. But here is the blunt truth: Buffalo had no choice. There is a reason it took three days of courting and convincing. The Bills are not a winning franchise and had to talk with their checkbook. The Bills were willing to pay more to get Williams, because if they didn't or all things were equal, Williams probably would have joined another team. The Bills proved that money still talks. Did they overpay? It depends on how well Williams performs the next several years. But Buffalo's goal was to get the best pass-rusher on the market, and the team accomplished that goal.

4. How does this impact the draft?

I don't think it impacts Buffalo's draft plans all that much. The Bills still can go in a variety of ways, and adding to the front seven on defense is a possibility. For example, Williams is going to get a lot of double-teams. Therefore, the Bills will need another threat opposite Williams. Can Buffalo rely on Shawne Merriman, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last year? Should the Bills draft a player such as South Carolina's Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw from Alabama at No. 10? The Bills can go in a lot of ways to help build the offense with early picks or build around Williams.

Now it's time to take the Buffalo Bills seriously in the AFC East.

The last-place Bills, who finished 6-10 in 2011, signed the best player in free agency not named Peyton Manning on Thursday. Buffalo agreed to a whopping six-year, $100 million contract with two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams. The contract also includes $50 million guaranteed.

Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix said the traditionally frugal Bills would spend this year in free agency -- and he wasn't kidding. Williams just became the highest-paid player in franchise history.

This is not just a great move for Buffalo. It's potentially a game-changer and home run for this rebuilding franchise, which hasn't made the playoffs since 1999 and hasn't won a playoff game since 1995. Buffalo had a long way to climb to catch the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots in the division. Williams moves the Bills closer to contention.

The trio of Williams, Marcell Dareus and a healthy Kyle Williams gives Buffalo one of the league's most dominant defensive lines. It's a lot easier to win games when you're controlling the line of scrimmage.

Mario Williams, who has 53 sacks in six seasons, brings a much-needed pass rush to Buffalo's new 4-3 defense. Dareus and Kyle Williams are stout, and will make it hard for opponents to run up the middle. This is a bad day in general for quarterbacks and offensive linemen in the AFC East.

With the Patriots and New York Jets relatively quiet so far, and the Miami Dolphins trading away their best player (Brandon Marshall) and possibly falling behind in the Manning sweepstakes, the Bills made up ground with one humongous signing.

How far can Williams take Buffalo next season? It's too early to say. Williams is a huge cog, but questions still remain on the roster.

Can the Bills find a shutdown cornerback? Can they get a left tackle to protect quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick? Can Buffalo add another receiver to complement Steve Johnson? The draft and the remainder of free agency are important to fill these needs. Buffalo also needs to stay healthy next season.

But the Bills accomplished priority No. 1 this offseason. They needed someone who can get to the quarterback, and landed the top pass-rusher on the market.

That makes Buffalo one of the early winners in free agency.