First Down: Ryan Williams’ comeback story is almost complete

Brad Evans

It was August 19, 2011. Ryan Williams, an up-and-coming second-round pick from Virginia Tech, excitedly bounced up and down on the sidelines biding his time to showcase his wares. The Cardinals were locked in a preseason battle versus the Packers at historic Lambeau Field. It was early in the third quarter.

Finally, his number was called.

The hungry rookie, who had performed admirably in his previous two preseason appearances, sprinted out to the huddle. He was ready to prove he belonged, ready to make an impact. When the ball slapped against his gut, he surveyed the line, planted, sprinted into the fray and felt a pop. Falling to the ground after a Packers defender landed awkwardly on his right leg, a sharp, extreme pain, resonating from his knee, immediately overcame Williams. For the next several minutes he writhed around in agony. Minutes later doctors carted him off the field.

Diagnosed with a ruptured patella tendon the next day, his season was officially over.

The road to recovery would be long and bitter. …

On Saturday, the bounce-back, nearly a year removed from his gruesome setback in Green Bay, returned to the field. This time his day would end to the sound of thunderous cheers and not sympathetic applause.

In the Cardinals' annual Red and White scrimmage in Flagstaff, Williams exhibited the promise Arizona's coaching staff and fans were exuberant about a season ago. On a hand-off from John Skelton, he cut right, rounded the corner and burst  into the open-field for a 44-yard gain. On an afternoon when the Cardinals defense dominated, he finished with an impressive 61 yards on eight carries, clearly the best performance by any offensive player.

Earlier in the week Williams claimed he was still operating at only 85-90-percent. After what he accomplished Saturday, it's no stretch to imagine how dangerous he could be at full-strength. Ken Whisenhunt, however, says patience needs to be exercised. From Arizona Sports:

"It's a process with him," he said. "I know we're going to have some days where he's a little bit sore, but it was great to see him out here [Saturday], it was nice to see him take that long run, it was nice to see him have to go inside and hit it up in there and make some cuts.

"Whenever a guy works as hard as Ryan has, you have a special place in your heart that you want to see him do well. I selfishly want him to do well because he's a good football player -- at least, that's what we think based on what we saw -- but it's great for him to get out here and do this."

Beanie Wells is looking weenier by the day.

The incumbent, who was placed on the active/PUP when Cards camp opened last week, admitted recently he is 75-percent after undergoing a knee procedure of unknown severity during the off-season.  Though the coaching staff has openly questioned his overall commitment, Wells, ever the poster-child of the American work ethic, plans to "take [his] time." However, if he doesn't return to action quickly, he could receive the short end of the stick.

Whisenhunt has repeatedly praised Williams for his amazing dedication this off-season, which has earned the young back plenty of brownie points. He may not possess the raw, pad-cracking power of Wells, but he is the more complete back. His remarkable vision and cutback ability are plus attributes, though his acceleration has yet to fully return.

Installing some sort of timeshare was Whisenhunt's initial plan, but if Williams continues to impress, the scale could tip to his side, potentially netting the resurrected rusher 14-16 touches per game. Arizona's offensive line is average at best and the passing game will likely be occasionally mediocre, especially if Kevin Kolb outlasts Skelton in camp, but any rusher with a crack at a substantial workload is worth strong fantasy consideration, speculative or not. Keep in mind with Larry Fitzgerald on roster, defenses likely won't overload the box on a regular basis. And remember Wells was the 19th-best back in per game average last year (1,047 rushing yards, 10 TDs).

Wells and Williams are separated by some 45 picks in average Y! drafts. Expect the latter to turn the biggest profit. Selected on average around pick No. 125, the ex-Hokie is a marvelous mid-draft pick in 12-teamers. At this point, he's a reliable FLEX option with RB2 upside in challenging formats.

A few hurdles remain for Williams, but for now it appears he's woken up from a year-long nightmare.

Fearless Forecast (14 games): 199 carries, 856 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 114 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns

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