*This article is part of our 2012 Path to the Draft coverage presented by Warehouse Pool Supply
INDIANAPOLIS – Draft prospects are the focal point of the NFL Scouting Combine, but free agency talk dominated Texans general manager Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak’s press conferences on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Texans have four starters who are set to become free agents on March 13: Outside linebacker
“Mario is a great player, and we want him to be a part of our football team and our organization, and so we’re working hard to figure out a way to get that done,” Smith said. “I think we’ve been very clear, they’ve (Williams and agent Ben Dogra) been very clear, that we would love to have him here.
“I don’t talk too much about negotiations publicly, but I think that there is no doubt that all the parties involved know what the desire is, and that’s for him to be here.”
The No. 1 overall pick in 2006, Williams was Kubiak’s first draft choice with the Texans. He has a team-record 53 sacks over the last six seasons, including five in 2011. If not for a Week 5 season-ending pectoral injury, the Texans think he could have contended for the league lead in sacks in his first year under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
“Mario’s part of the growth of this organization when we started back at the bottom what six years ago,” Kubiak said. “Was a great draft choice for our organization; has played extremely well. Was playing at the top of his game under Wade’s system, playing the outside linebacker. So we think a great deal of Mario as a player and even more as a person. He’s been wonderful for our team and our city.”
Foster, an undrafted free agent in 2009, is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. He led the league in rushing in 2010 and finished fifth in 2011 despite missing three-and-a-half games.
“Arian’s a three-down player,” Kubiak said. “It’s hard to find backs in the league nowadays that never leave the field. Arian never leaves the field. His hands, what he can do catching the ball can be just as dangerous as he can running it, in a lot of ways. He’s very smart, excellent in protection schemes and what he does.
“Arian’s been exceptional for our football team, and yet he’s been very unselfish, too. Arian played without talking about numbers and contracts. Arian held up his end of the bargain last year as a player, and there’s a lot to be said for that, the way he stepped in and did his job.”
Smith said the Texans will have to restructure current players’ contracts and get as creative as possible to clear room under the salary cap.
He did not say whether the Texans would be reluctant to use the franchise tag on Foster, but he did say they “will use every available option” at their disposal during free agency.
“We’ll try to make the decisions that give us the best chance to impact our team overall,” Smith said. “Whether we’re talking about Mario or Arian or Chris Myers or whoever we’re talking about with respect to our guys that we would like to sign back… what we’re trying to do is put a game plan together that gives us a chance to have the best overall football team.”
Myers and Brisiel have been overshadowed by Williams and Foster in free agency speculation, but they’re an integral part of the Texans’ success in the running game. The Texans ranked second in the NFL last season with a franchise-record 153.0 rushing yards per game. Myers made the Pro Bowl, while Brisiel was named captain of the USA Today “All-Joe” Team.
“They mean a great deal,” Kubiak said of the two linemen. “Up front, we’ve played the same five guys for almost two or three years now in a row, and I think that’s why we’ve made so much progress.
“Chris is the leader of the group. He makes all the calls. He’s been exceptional for us. We got Chris for a sixth-round draft choice a few years ago, and (offensive line coach) John Benton’s done a great job developing him. Mike Brisiel as well. Mike was a free agent that John did a great job of developing.
“The key in this business to being good in the long haul is holding people together, so we’ve got that situation on our hands with those two players, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep the group together moving forward.”