Mario Williams and the franchise tag

Mario Williams' future with the Houston Texans remains uncertain heading into the offseason. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

Perhaps the biggest question that will hover over the Houston Texans after the season ends, no matter how it ends, is whether to extend defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mario Williams.

With Conner Barwin and Brooks Reed as their outside linebackers since Williams suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle on Oct. 9, the Texans have done just fine. They rattled off a seven-game winning streak that just ended and clinched their first AFC South title and playoff berth.

Williams is a dominant force. The Texans’ defense could have been even better with him. But he’s been slowed by a couple of injuries, and a pass-rusher of his caliber will cost a fortune on the free market. Houston extended some players at the start of camp to make their salary cap work, and he wasn’t in the mix.

“I love the Houston Texans; the team’s been great, the organization’s been great since I’ve been here,” Williams said this week. “At the end of the day, it’s business. Whatever decision they make, at this point I’m just trying to help the team focus on winning. ... I couldn’t care less about my contract right now. The big picture right now is just for us to do well and fight through the injuries.”

I’ve frequently been asked if I think he will be re-signed, and my answer has been that I think the Texans will use the franchise tag on him.

I figured, too, that a battle over his position could ensue with regard to the tag, like what the Ravens and Terrell Suggs went through in 2008 and 2009.

[UPDATE, 4:57 p.m.: I now interrupt this post to correct myself and make the rest of it an example of what could happen in another situation like Williams' instead of his situation itself. As gbrussell points out below, a secondary provision of the franchise tag is that if it's not more than 120 percent of a player's previous salary, he gets that number instead. Williams has a $13.8 million salary in 2011. So his franchise 2012 tag number would be $16.56 million. That's prohibitive. A long-term deal would come with a much lower 2012 number. The Texans have to give him a deal or let him go. Back to a scenario that would play out if Williams had a reasonable number this season.]

The Ravens argued Suggs was a linebacker, as he was listed as one on the Pro Bowl ballot. Suggs' representation argued he played more than half of his snaps as a pass-rushing end.

Suggs filed a grievance on getting the right franchise number and the sides finally agreed on a hybrid figure, which was in between the defensive end and linebacker number.

Asking around about the tag, I learned that rough estimates were just given to the clubs.

In the new CBA, franchise numbers look to be going down. It’s still regarded as “the average of the five-highest paid players at the position from the previous season,” but those words don’t mean what they used to, and it’s actually the average of the five-highest paid players at the position as a share of the salary cap over the past five seasons.

Skip ahead if you don’t care for legalese, or dive in if you want the actual CBA language on it. Here is how a franchise number is now calculated:

(1) Summing the amounts of the Franchise Tags for players at that position for the five preceding League Years; (2) dividing the resulting amount by the sum of the Salary Caps for the five preceding League Years(using the average of the amounts of the 2009 and 2011 Salary Caps as the Salary Cap amount for the 2010 League Year); and (3) multiplying the resulting percentage by the Salary Cap for the upcoming League Year (e.g., when calculating the Tender for the 2012 League Year, dividing the aggregate sum of the Franchise Tags for players at that position for the 2007-201 1 League Years by the aggregate sum of the Salary Caps for the 2007-2011 League Years and multiplying the result by the amount of the Salary Cap for the 2012 League Year) (the "Cap Percentage Average")

So the owners got the numbers tamped down in the new deal. The players will get smaller percentages of a larger cap, but until there is a real cap boom, the resulting number will be lower than it has been.

The safety franchise tag, for instance, accounted for 8.8 percent of the $120 million salary cap last season, but will now be worth roughly 5.1 percent of the cap.

So what’s the difference between a tagged linebacker and end going to look like under the 2012 cap, expected to be about $125 million?

The defensive end number will be roughly 8.8 percent of the cap, down from 12.9.

The linebacker number will be roughly 7.3 percent, down from 10 percent.

So as an end, Williams would get an $11 million tag, and as a linebacker it would be $8.125 million. If the Texans choose to hold onto Williams with a tag, the sides could argue about the $2.875 million difference.

Is Williams an outside linebacker in the Texans 3-4 system? Yes. Have the Texans maintained it’s not very different from what he did as a defensive end, particularly in the nickel package? They have.

So despite clear CBA language that says the tag is determined by the position “at which the Franchise Player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year,” there could still be a debate over semantics -- is Williams a linebacker if he’s not in a three-point stance, or if he’s lined up where an end lines up is he an end no matter his stance or the team’s scheme?

Williams’ agent, Ben Dogra, didn’t answer an email inquiry about the possible debate.

“If it comes to [a franchise tag], then so be it,” Williams said. “I’m open to whatever, we’ll discuss that. I understand the way things work with salary caps and so forth. Whatever could help the team out, me and my agent will look at every option and go through that.

For tag purposes is he a linebacker or an end?

“I don’t know, I have no idea,” he said. "At the end of the day, obviously I’m still, I am a defensive end. I don’t know how that would go down or whatever. I’m sure either way it will work itself out.

“There are a lot of smart guys up there who can move things around and figure stuff out. I’ll let them handle and my agent that while I support the team anyway I can and get healthy and be ready to play next year.”