Humility can spring from many sources. For Mike Williams it came from the fear he felt while watching a TV special in April that ranked the alltime NFL draft busts. While his name wasn't called, his concern was understandable. In three years the former USC wideout had gone from top 10 pick to washout, the result of a bad attitude and a bloated waistline.
But in one of the more intriguing camp stories, Williams, after a two-year layoff, is opening eyes with the Seahawks. The 26-year-old has barely reached the first bend on the road to redemption, yet he's serious about fulfilling the potential he showed as a Trojan, when he had 176 receptions for 2,579 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman and sophomore.
"He had great sessions in the off-season, and in camp he's taken it a step further," says Pete Carroll, who coached Williams at USC and is in his first season at Seattle. "He looks like the guy he was coming out of college."
At 6'5", 230, Williams was a matchup nightmare, too big for cornerbacks and too fast for safeties. The Lions picked him 10th in 2005 even though he had to sit out the '04 season because of eligibility complications. Williams now admits he had a poor work ethic and a sense of entitlement as a rookie. "I felt like, Y'all drafted me to play, so I should be playing," he says. "I just never gave the relationship a fair chance." The Lions sent him to Oakland after two seasons, but he played just six games with the Raiders and two with the Titans in 2007, by which point he was reportedly 270 pounds. Tennessee cut him the next summer.
Last fall Williams began working with a nutritionist and hired a trainer, and he now weighs 233; Carroll calls his conditioning "extraordinary." He'll get every opportunity to prove himself with Seattle, which needs an impact wideout. Nate Burleson, last year's second-leading receiver, signed with Detroit. Deion Branch is 31 and hasn't played a full season since 2005. T.J. Houshmandzadeh turns 33 next month and is coming off hernia surgery. Rookie Golden Tate from Notre Dame is expected to contend for a starting job.
None of them have Williams's physical presence. You see it when he goes up over cornerbacks and effortlessly outmuscles them for the ball. The goal now is consistency, not just day-to-day but play-to-play. "This is easily the best off-season I've had," Williams says. "I'm here with a different mind-set. If you combine my talent with doing all the right things, there's no limit to what I can do. But that's all lip service right now. I just want to build up to that point where I can put it on display for everyone to see."
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Other former first-rounders attempting to restart their careers:
• Matt Jones, a 6' 6" wideout taken 21st by the Jaguars in 2005, signed with the Bengals after sitting out last season. He had his best year in '08, with 65 catches for 761 yards, but was cut in March '09 after a second substance-abuse charge. His year away from football and Cincinnati's recent signing of Terrell Owens could hurt his chances.
• Ted Ginn Jr., drafted ninth by the Dolphins in '07, was doomed from the start in Miami. Critics said he was taken too high, and his 128 catches in three years did nothing to change that opinion. This off-season Miami traded him to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick. San Francisco expects Ginn (below) to be a kick-return specialist and a downfield threat.
ROD MAR (WILLIAMS)
TIP-TOP At 6'5" Williams (1) has always towered over DBs; now his attitude is sky-high too.
EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES (GINN)