By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Miami Dolphins announced on Thursday that they have released veteran defensive end Mario Williams, bringing a fleeting stint in Miami to a disappointing end. The 32-year-old was much maligned during the past two seasons in Miami and Buffalo for his subpar play and a perceived lack of effort on the field.
Williams’ stock could not be any lower as he becomes a free agent once again – and that’s exactly why it should surprise no one if the Patriots take a chance on him.
With Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard on track to become unrestricted free agents, the Patriots are going to be left with Trey Flowers and special teamer Geneo Grissom at defensive end. And if you want to add Rob Ninkovich to that list, fine. But despite Flowers’ emergence as a game-changer down the stretch of the 2016 season, the Patriots will have a clear need at the position behind him.
Williams, the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, would represent the kind of low-risk, high-reward reclamation project that Bill Belichick has not shied away from during his Patriots tenure. Some have worked out tremendously for at least one season (Corey Dillon, Randy Moss), while others (Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco) delivered little to no value. It also helps that Belichick has had a good, long look at Williams, coaching against him twice a year for the past five seasons.
Signings like these are essentially a 50-50 proposition, but Belichick certainly isn’t afraid to flip that coin.
At the end of the day, the “Having Tom Brady” strategy allows Belichick to take these kinds of risks. Signing a player like Williams would not poison the Patriots’ season, even if he was a total disaster in and of himself. But in a winning environment with the stability and structure that the Patriots have, Williams could have a chance at a renaissance season on a one-year “prove it” deal in a Patriots uniform.
The last two seasons, to put it lightly, have not gone well for Williams. After averaging over 12 sacks per game in his first three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, he had just five sacks in 2015 and was the target of harsh criticism from his teammates on the way out the door. Much of the barbs directed at Williams said he was selfish and had “checked out.”
Williams’ only season in Miami didn’t go much better. He started just five games and faced criticism from then-Dolphins defensive coordinator, now-Broncos head coach Vance Joseph. The coach said publicly that Williams needed to play “better” and “harder” – and that was by mid-October. Williams basically agreed that he needed to play better and harder, but also made some comments that may actually give the Patriots pause in gambling on him in free agency.
“I want to be more, I guess, free to do different things and cut it loose a little bit,” said Williams, according to the Miami Herald. As it became known in the wake of the Jamie Collins trade, “freelancing” is not something that Belichick would put up with from any player on the defense.
However, maybe Williams would buy in with whatever Belichick and Matt Patricia do to coach him up in the Patriots’ system. Perhaps, for one year, he just keeps his mouth shut and does his job and approaches the level he played at during his time with the Houston Texans and first few years in Buffalo.
Belichick just proved in 2016 that he can still take an aging veteran defensive end like Chris Long, who appeared to be in decline, and get the most out of him. Long played a key role in one of the most crucial plays of the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI comeback when he forced a holding call on Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews. If Williams can stay in his lane and come up with just one big play in a big-time situation like that, he’d be worth every penny.
And about money … that certainly won’t be a focus of Williams as he tries to convince a team to take a chance on him. He’s earned over $120 million in cold hard cash in his 11-year career, according to Spotrac. Few teams will be willing to give him anything close to what he made in Houston, Buffalo, or even Miami, and no team would go beyond one year. But if any coach can sign Williams on short money and prove that he still has plenty left in the tank, it’s Belichick.
There’s always the chance that Williams is simply a lost cause at this point, like Haynesworth was when the Patriots took a stab at him in 2011. He lasted just six games before the Patriots released him; the same thing could happen to Williams, and there’s little to no chance he would put a dent in the team’s ability to win games as long as they have Brady playing at the level he’s at right now.
Don’t be surprised if Williams ends up on the Patriots’ radar when the NFL’s free agency period kicks off. They’re going to need to add a defensive end, preferably a veteran, and he could have a chance to be the kind of signing that pays off in a way that wouldn’t happen with most other teams.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.