by Ron Mexico
Carson Palmer headed into the 2002 season as a possible second day pick that had thrown 39 touchdowns and 39 interceptions in his college career. Then something happened: A wide receiver from Plant High School in Tampa, Florida arrived in Los Angeles and altered the course of Palmer’s career. 39 touchdown passes and one Heisman trophy later, and the Cincinnati Bengals selected Palmer first overall in the 2003 NFL draft. The freshman wide receiver caught 81 passes for 1,265 yards and 14 touchdowns, which happened to be one more touchdown than Palmer had thrown his entire junior year. The wide receiver’s name was Mike Williams.
As soon as Mike Williams stepped onto the field, he was a man among boys. Already perhaps the best receiver in the nation heading into his sophomore, and unfortunately, final year, Williams put up astronomical numbers with then-unproven quarterback Matt Lineart behind center. Besides leading USC to share of the national championship, Williams caught 95 passes for 1,314 yards and 16 touchdowns and was a consensus All-American. In the Rose Bowl against Braylon Edwards’ Michigan Wolverines, Williams caught 8 passes for 88 yards and threw a touchdown pass to quarterback Matt Lineart (giving Lineart one more career touchdown reception than Matt “the Phenom” Jones.) Against Auburn and consensus first-round pick Carlos Rogers, Williams caught 8 passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.Williams also dominated when the Trojans took on their biggest rivals, snagging in 9 receptions for 112 yards against Notre Dame and pulling in 11 catches for 181 yards and a pair of scores against bitter foe UCLA–by halftime.
After two seasons at USC, Williams was already the school’s all time leader in touchdown receptions, fourth on its list in receptions, and fifth in receiving yards. Add to that, he had a national championship ring on his finger, and there was no logical reason for Williams to go back to USC after a court ruled sophomores eligible for the NFL draft. Only Williams and Ohio St. running back and all-around a$$ Maurice Clarett elected to jump into the big time. Williams was projected as a top ten pick, ahead of such players as Michael Clayton, Reggie Williams, Michael Jenkins, and Rashaun Woods. However, a week before the draft, the ruling was overturned, leaving Mike Williams out in the cold. Williams attempted to have his eligibility at Southern Cal restored, but the NCAA would not allow it. Mike Williams’ dazzling college career was over.
But the time has finally arrived for this prodigy to enter the National Football league. Next Saturday Mike Williams, a young man that hasn’t played football in over a year, will be a top ten pick in the league’s annual gala of top prospects and angry Jets and Eagles fans. Williams likely won’t be the top pick in the draft and probably won’t even be the first wide receiver off the board, an honor that is likely to go to Michigan’s Braylon Edwards. This could be one of the more colossal mistakes in recent draft history. Football is one place where absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. The NCAA’s not allowing Williams to play in 2004 has clearly hurt his draft stock. Had he been able to return for his junior year, the debate of “Aaron Rodgers/Alex Smith/Braylon Edwards” likely wouldn’t be bugging Mike Nolan these days. Mike Williams would be the clear-cut choice.
Keyshawn Johnson, the loudmouthed, Pam Oliver-slapping, Wayne Chrebet-bashing wide receiver from Southern Cal was picked first overall by the Jets in 1996. However, in his two years at USC, Williams accomplished more than Johnson did in his entire college career. With a third year, he could have went down as one of the most prolific receivers in NCAA history. Even in an offense that featured future first rounders Matt Lineart and Reggie Bush, and current NFL’ers Carson Palmer and Keary Colbert, Williams stood out as easily the most talented of the bunch. From his ability to break free from the jams of cornerbacks, to his penchant for making circus catches that no normal wide receiver would ever even dream of making. Mike Williams made some catches in his two short years of college that would make the collective jaws of NFL stars like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Torry Holt, drop. When compared to Michigan’s Braylon Edwards, Williams production stands out even more: in his sophomore and junior years, Edwards had a combined 152 receptions for 2,173 yards and 24 touchdowns. Impressive, right? The younger Williams put up these numbers as a freshman and sophomore: 176 receptions for 2,579 yards and 30 touchdowns. Hey, but that was over a year ago. Mike Williams didn’t play last year and Edwards put up nearly identical numbers in his senior year to Williams in his sophomore year. Basically, Braylon Edwards was as good in his senior year as Mike Williams was in his sophomore year. But let’s forget about that: it was over a year ago, I say!
With Braylon Edwards just finally beginning to catch up to Mike Williams in terms of production (That, of course, being helped by the fact that Williams was forced to sit out what could have been the most stunning season by a wide receiver in NCAA history), it only makes sense for Edwards’ name to be the first of his wide receiving brethren to be called out next Saturday. After all, the NFL is a “What have you done for me lately?” kind of league. Williams sat, Edwards played. Does that mean Braylon Edwards is suddenly better than Mike Williams? Hell, Troy Williamson and Mark Clayton played last year too. Maybe they’re better than Mike Williams! Matt Jones played last year (at quarterback, but who’s nitpicking?). Maybe he’s better than Mike Williams, too!
The bottom line is that there is no receiver in this class that is better than Mike Williams. He was better than them a year ago and he is better than them now. The suggestion that a player could come straight out of high school and be productive in the National Football League is laughable…but not here. It was unfair for college cornerbacks to try to guard Mike Williams. Just ask Carlos Rogers, Matt Ware, Brandon Browner, or Marlin Jackson. Mike Williams may not run the fastest 40 time, but as has been said before, when the hell is he ever going to have to run in a straight line forty yards down the field? Williams was a master at getting separation in college. He was able to torch some of the most successful college corners, some of whom will and might be first round picks this year. These guys are supposed to come in this year and be shutdown corners, but Mike Williams, whose knock is that he may not be fast enough to get open in the NFL, has torched them all. This 6 foot 5, 230 pound monster is as physical as Terrell Owens and has leaping ability comparable to Randy Moss. In addition to that, unlike Braylon Edwards and Michael Vick, he doesn’t have a case of the dropsies. Wait…hang on, that was something else that Vick had.
Mike Williams will not be the first wide receiver taken in this year’s draft. Some team is going to look at him and say “We need a wide receiver. On one side, we have this receiver from Michigan, where NFL legends like Amani Toomer and David Terrell honed their skills. Then there’s this guy from Southern Cal. Although, his numbers were just as good as a sophomore than Mr. Wolverines were as a senior, this guy actually was a far more consistent receiver. But he hasn’t played in a year! And look at that…he’s a tenth of a second slower than the Michigan kid!!!”. With the first pick of the 2005 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers select…Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan. Whether it’s the 49ers, the Dolphins, the Browns, the Bears, or the Bucs, some team is going to make the wrong decision next Saturday. This 6 foot 5 beast that “hasn’t played in a year” and “can’t get open in the NFL” will be considered the best receiver in the NFL five years from now, about the time Braylon Edwards becomes Bill Belichick’s latest reclamation project.