The Texans are facing an offseason unlike any other they have ever seen in their ten years of existence. For the first time ever, General Manager Rick Smith, Coach Gary Kubiak and owner Bob McNair have to figure out how to keep together a very good lineup of players and, gasp, even make it better. For them, it's an unprecedented and a welcome change from the years of filling holes. There will still be a few holes to fill, but not on the order of magnitude we've seen over the last ten years.
They will need to seek a better second cornerback in free agency to shore up their secondary and get Kareem Jackson out of a role for which he is clearly outmatched. They will need to seek a second wide receiver, probably in the draft, to pair with a still talented but aging Andre Johnson. They will need some offensive line, defensive line and linebacker depth. They will also need to re-sign Chris Meyers and Mike Brisiel, who anchored the best offensive line in football. When Brisiel went down with an injury late in the year, so did the rushing yards.
But those are all manageable problems with reasonable solutions. The real issue, and the one fans are talking about, is if the Texans can sign both Arian Foster and Mario Williams and, more to the point, if they should. Here's a side-by-side comparison to help us figure it out.
Williams has suffered through a handful of injuries that have impeded his ability over the last few years, including an oddball torn pectoral muscle this season. Foster struggled with hamstring injuries early this year, but has been otherwise durable
Value at Position
Setting aside health for the moment, both of these guys are impact players. Both are pro bowlers. Williams has up and down moments, but he commands a double team and still gets double-digit sacks. Foster not only churns out yards on the ground, but has great hands and is a double threat out of the backfield.
Impact on the Game
As much as the sacks and pressures and double teams mean to a team's defense, it is hard to compare to a guy who will have the ball in his hand 20-plus times per game.
Attitude and Intangibles
This is tricky. In a recent interview with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, he said that Williams had stayed with the team after he was hurt, working with players and even giving pep talks to them. Phillips said this was something you almost never see when a player is lost for the season with an injury. Foster is enigmatic with his bow tie, dry wit and namaste bows in the end zone, but he's a character that people love. Both have had what appeared to be some motivational issues in the past and I do wonder how Foster would handle a massive contract. It didn't work out well for Chris Johnson in Tennessee and no one had questioned him previously. Still, Foster has that big league vibe to him and he is beloved by fans.
Foster's backup Ben Tate has performed tremendously well since his return from injury prior to the start of the season. He has helped the Texans form the best one-two backfield combo in the league. And in the Denver running scheme, it is common to plug in barely known backs to deliver 1000-yard seasons. With the emergence of rookies JJ Watt and Brooks Reid, it is hard to argue the Texans aren't set with their pass rush for a long time with or without Williams.
The aggregate cost for a running back in the NFL has actually decreased the past couple of years, that massive Chris Johnson contract notwithstanding. Pass rushing defensive ends always come at a premium. With Foster, you have to be concerned not just about how much but for how long as running backs can decline rapidly with age. In an ideal world, the Texans could afford both, but that probably won't happen, which is why we are even having this discussion in the first place.
As great as Foster is, there is just no question that the vast majority of running backs decline around the age of 30, particularly if they are asked to carry the load. Foster is a game changer who will be called upon a lot in the next couple years. He's got four years until 30. A great pass rushing defensive end, if his health is maintained, can stay in the league 10, 12 years easily.
Value on the Open Market
Both would have value on the open market, but I have to believe the edge here might go to Williams. Teams don't tend to spend huge dollars in free agency on running backs. They do, however, on defensive ends.
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Overall Winner: Foster
The simple truth is that Arian Foster has the ball in his hands 20 to 30 times every game. His ability to impact wins and losses is much easier to quantify than Williams's. Even if he only plays a couple more seasons -- à la Terrell Davis in Denver -- he can still propel the team to a Super Bowl with the talent around him.
If there is a way to sign both and still return Meyers and Brisiel as well as find a suitable cornerback, I say go for it. Nothing would make me happier than to retain the services of a guy like Williams, who seemed to blossom in Phillips's system before he was injured. But, if you had to make a choice between the two, the choice should be Foster.