|Antonio Smith and a few other veterans could help the Texans keep Mario Williams. (Getty Images)|
There is less than a week until the deadline for teams to use the franchise tag on players. For some teams, it's a no brainer. For others it is a difficult decision.
The latter group includes the Houston Texans. For most of the offseason it has been assumed that Houston simply can't tag Mario Williams because of the cap expense. Tagging him would be close to impossible but getting him signed to a deal could be attainable.
Williams made $18.326 million last year and whether he is viewed as a defensive end (franchise tag price of $10.6 million) or outside linebacker (franchise tag $8.8 million) it doesn't matter because he qualifies for 120 percent of his 2011 salary because it is higher than the franchise tag. That requires $22 million of salary cap space. As soon as Williams signs the franchise offer it is guaranteed.
The Texans have $4.77 million of cap space as of Feb. 29. Tagging him is impossible unless they dump a considerable number of high-priced players, weakening the team. Signing him to a long-term deal is possible and I will show you a few options Houston could consider to keep the 27-year-old Williams in a Texans uniform.
The team also has to find a way to re-sign center Chris Myers and restricted free-agent running back Arian Foster. It is no easy task but it can be done. It will take a lot of cash, somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million, but if the Texans believe they are close to a Super Bowl this isn't the time to go backward in the personnel department. A team in a rebuilding situation or with an aging squad should not consider this method.
First, you can forget going to Matt Schaub for cap relief because he is in the last year of his deal and there is no way to spread a bonus out. Asking him to do a contract extension might be too much with the price of quarterbacks still going up so ignore him for the time being.
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Before the Texans cut any players to make this work they could talk to four veterans -- Andre Johnson, Johnathan Joseph, Owen Daniels, Antonio Smith -- about converting salary to signing bonus without adding any years to their existing contracts. I would assume that all four would be willing to take cash now instead of during the season. All have multiple years left on their contracts and all four should be in the Texans' plans at least for the length of their present contracts.
• Johnson is scheduled to make $6.5 million this season and has five years left on his deal. Convert $5 million of his 2012 salary to signing bonus and for cap purposes spread the bonus out over the five years remaining and it gives the Texans $4 million of salary-cap space right now.
• Joseph is scheduled to make $7.25 million this season and has four years left on his deal. Convert $6 million of his 2012 salary into signing bonus and spread it out over the four years and it gives the Texans another $4.5 million of cap space.
• Daniels is scheduled to make $3.5 million this year and has three years left on his deal. Convert $2.5 million of his salary to signing bonus and spread it out over the three years and it gives the Texans $1.66 million of cap space.
• Smith is scheduled to make $5.5 million this year and has two years left on his contract. Convert $4 million of it to signing bonus and spread it over the two seasons and it gives the Texans $2 million of salary cap space.
Those four contract maneuvers create a total of $12.16 million of cap space. Add that to the $4.77 million of existing space and the Texans have $16.93 million of space to work with to keep their players.
First stop: Mario Williams. Since Williams knows the team can't afford the franchise tag and if he gets to free agency he should get a contract close to Julius Peppers' deal that averages $14 million a year, the Texans have to get to the real numbers. The right deal might be six years for $90 million with a $30 million signing bonus and a $1 million salary in the first year. That means Williams sees $31 million the first year.
The cap charge for that deal is only $6 million in 2012: Divide the number of years (6) into the bonus ($30 million) to get a yearly proration of $5 million plus a $1 million salary. The second-year salary could be $3 million, which means he sees $34 million in the first two years. That is a $17 million average and a second-year cap charge of $8 million, which is tolerable. A third season at a $7 million salary means a three-year average of $13.6 million, or slightly above Peppers' three-year average. The cap charge for the third year would be $12 million.
That deal leaves $10.66 million of cap space in 2012, enough to sign Myers, Foster and draft picks. The salary cap is low right now but there will be growth in the next few years and the Texans will be able to absorb the contract growth.
There's always a risk when handing out big bonuses instead of unguaranteed salaries but the Texans are close to the top and could be legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The Colts are rebuilding, the Jaguars are starting a second-year quarterback and the Titans may be doing the same. The time is now for the Houston Texas.