ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Hours after signing a six-year, $100 million contract with the Buffalo Bills in 2012, defensive end Mario Williams held a Bills helmet and posed for a photo alongside then-coach Chan Gailey, then-general manager Buddy Nix and then-CEO Russ Brandon.
Gailey was fired after the 2012 season, Nix retired the following offseason and Brandon has since moved away from football decisions, but Williams remains under contract for the next two seasons, with a growing price tag.
Williams, who will turn 31 next month, will count $19.9 million against the Bills' 2016 salary cap, the highest cap number of any of the six years in his deal. After counting more than $11 million more than any other player against the Bills' cap this season, he will cost the team more than $5 million more than anyone else next season. Only 10 NFL players are scheduled to have larger cap numbers next season, including only two non-quarterbacks: Miami's Ndamukong Suh and Detroit's Calvin Johnson.
Is Williams worth that sort of money? Probably not, and the Bills would be wise to consider moving on from him after this season.
This isn't a question of Williams' performance. From 2012 through 2014, he had 38 sacks, more than any player in that span except J.J. Watt (51.5 sacks), Justin Houston (43.0) and Robert Quinn (40.0). He also has been durable, playing through a wrist injury in 2012 and not missing a game with the Bills until this past Sunday, when he was sidelined because of a foot injury.
That foot injury leaves Williams questionable for Sunday's game against the Houston Texans, who selected Williams first overall in 2006 and allowed him to become a free agent following the 2011 season.
Both the Bills and Texans have played 59 games since Williams arrived in Buffalo. In that span, the Texans have a 29-30 record and have made the playoffs once, in 2012, and at 6-5 they have a shot at another postseason berth this year. The Bills have a 26-33 record in that span and have not made the playoffs, and with back-to-back losses entering this week, their hopes are quickly fading again this year.
Obviously, those results aren't a direct result of either the Bills signing Williams or him not returning to the Texans. There are a multitude of other factors at play, from quarterback performance to division opponents. But that's the point: It takes much more than one player, especially a non-quarterback, for a team to win.
That concept seemed lost on the Bills almost four years ago.
"We got a lot better," Nix said during Williams' introductory news conference in 2012. "Good things come to the people that wait. So you guys have been waiting, and we've got a good thing here."
Bills fans might have cheered some of Williams' big plays and celebrated the team's NFL-best 54 sacks last season, but they're still waiting for what Nix promised: a good thing going for the team as a whole.
When the Bills evaluate their whole team after this season, releasing Williams is a move that should be seriously considered.
The question is not whether Williams has been a good player for the past four seasons, or whether he'll continue to play at a high level over the final two years of his deal. Instead, it's weighing cost against value and opportunity cost. What is Williams worth, and what could the Bills do with the money they would save by cutting him?
That amount, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is $12.9 million, or it could be $14.5 million if the Bills designated Williams as a post-June 1 cut, although that extra $1.6 million in cap space would not be available to them until June.
This much is clear: The Bills need the space. Their projected cap number for 2016 is about $149 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The team can carry over its unused 2015 cap space -- about $6 million as of Tuesday, according to NFLPA documents -- but that carried-over amount will be adjusted for incentives that players earned this season but did not count against the 2015 cap, lessening how much the Bills can spend in 2016.
Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported Tuesday that teams have been informed the 2016 league-wide salary cap will be between $147 million and $155 million, so the Bills are close to the limit. They can restructure contracts to clear some room, but releasing players will generally have a bigger impact.
If the Bills released Williams, they could use their $12.9 million in savings to help re-sign left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito, who have been among the NFL's best at their positions this season and the biggest reasons the Bills' offensive line has improved from last season. Linebacker Nigel Bradham also will be a free agent, and the Bills will need cap space to sign lower-level players and draft picks.
Losing Williams would be a blow to the defense. His pass-rushing production has declined considerably this season, with just three sacks, his fewest through 11 games in any of his 10 NFL seasons. But Williams has been a versatile player in Rex Ryan's scheme, capable of sliding to the interior of the defensive line as a run-stopper or walking outside to drop into coverage.
But the Bills can fill the hole with a draft choice or a cheaper free-agent signing, as good teams often do. As long as that player can stop the run, Jerry Hughes, a younger pass-rusher whom the Bills signed to a $45 million contract last offseason, can handle getting after the quarterback.
Buffalo doesn't need its 19.9 million-dollar man in order to win.