Stephen Williams, back when he was the apple of Arizona's eye. (azcardinals.com)
RENTON, Wash. – The news was not good for the Seattle Seahawks’ hypothetical receiver corps on Tuesday. On the same day that head coach Pete Carroll told the media that number-one target Sidney Rice was in Switzerland undergoing “some sort of knee treatment,” fellow number-one target Percy Harvin announced via Twitter that he will require hip surgery. Rice’s timeline is unknown, though Carroll said he thought Rice would not miss any games, but Harvin will be out for 3-4 months at the very least, according to initial reports.
How are the Seahawks, seen by many as a front-line Super Bowl contender, to deal with all of this roster churn? Fourth-year man Golden Tate is expected to step up, and those in attendance at training camp may have noticed a tall, lanky young man with jersey number 83, beating All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman in red zone drills with a one-handed catch. Stephen Williams, who went undrafted in the same 2010 class that saw Tate go in the second cound, was busy adding to a most impressive early camp while the Seahawks were stressing about their better-known playmakers.
Williams’ story is certainly intriguing. The Arizona Cardinals had a third-round grade on him in the 2010 draft, but grabbed the Toledo alum as an undrafted free agent. Williams impressed his teammates to a fairly ridiculous degree – defensive end Bert Berry said that Williams’ undrafted status was “insane” and “an absolute crime,” while safety Kerry Rhodes told the local media that "I have no idea how this kid didn't get drafted, but he's a beast. Whether he's going up against the third team, the second team or the first team, he's a beast."
Derek Anderson, the team’s primary starting quarterback in the first post-Kurt Warner year, said that he’d never worked with a rookie receiver who looked better, and uber-receiver Larry Fitzgerald actually insisted that in time, Williams could replace him as the team’s top man. Fitzgerald is famously kind to his young battery mates, but you’ve never heard him say that about Michael Floyd or Andre Roberts.
So, what happened? Williams went through some ball security issues early on, hurt his back in Week 5 of his rookie campaign, and suffered a pretty gruesome Achilles’ tendon injury in August of 2012 (“I tore it right off the bone,” he told me on Tuesday). The Cardinals believed that Williams “plateaued” early on, but the truth was, Williams never got healthy long enough to show what he could do – and catching passes from Arizona’s dumpster fire of a quarterback rotation didn’t help matters. He’s caught nine passes for 101 yards in his entire NFL career, and one would have to have had Williams on one’s radar to believe there was a future.
Seattle general manager John Schneider had Williams on his radar back then, and jumped to sign him to a two-year, $1.2 million contract in January of 2013. Then, it was up to Williams to show that he had anything in the tank, and he’s certainly done it so far.
“John liked him early, he saw his run-after-catch ability,” Carroll said on Tuesday, before the Harvin news was known. “He was a really productive college player, he had over 3,000 yards receiving. John liked him. Just his flexibility. I love big guys. I love to see a guy that can play at 6-foot-5. He’s really fast, he’s doing a great job, and he’s having an excellent camp. He did well in the OTA [practices], but once we got him out here, to see him battle with [cornerbacks] Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman and have some success -- that’s a big statement. We’re really hopeful that he can be a part of this.”
More hopeful now than ever to be sure. Williams was just as excited about the opportunity when the Seahawks gave him the call.
“I remembered John from college, so when I got the opportunity to be on the market, I told my agent to make this happen. It seems like a great opportunity with a young team, and a great quarterback on the uprise. I want to be a part of it. I always thought I was going to be here anyway, so being here now, and how Pete Carroll is running things – it’s a new beginning for me. ”
Well, Russell Wilson is certainly a damn sight better than the guys throwing footballs to Williams and his former teammates over the last three years. Wilson has something in common with Williams – a chip on his shoulder that can be traced back to a past as an undervalued player. Wilson was selected in the third round of the 2012 draft because he was allegedly too short, and all he did in his first season was tie Peyton Manning’s rookie record for touchdown passes. Doug Baldwin still has a sneer because no team drafted him. Sherman, who Williams beat on what could be a fateful play, won’t shut up about all those teams who let him slide to the fifth round. And when Williams lines up on Sherman’s opposite side, he has to go up against Brandon Browner, who spent five years in the Canadian Football League. If Williams feels that he got a short shrift from the league, he’s got a lot of company – Carroll loves to collect these types of guys.
“It’s great to be around dudes who are young, and want to compete, and want to be great,” Williams said. “We come out here every day and we’re battling, but when we are in the locker room, it’s nothing but love. I’m just happy to be a part of the team.”
Receivers coach Kippy Brown told me that he’s been more than a little bit impressed with what he’s seen.
“Our scouting staff brought him in, and I didn’t know a lot about Stephen before he got here,” Brown said. “But I love his size, I love his aggressiveness, I love the way he works, and he’s made a lot of plays out here. He’s still learning the offense – he hasn’t been her as long as some of the other guys – but he’s getting there.”
If Williams ever does “get there,” he won’t forget the lessons he learned from Fitzgerald, who taught him by example that no matter how great you may be, the downhill slide can be precipitous if you don’t maintain your game.
“I tell a lot of people – you see Fitz, you think he’s just a freak of nature and a gifted player,” he said. “But he’s got one of the hardest work ethics I’ve ever seen. You see him at that elite level, and being so consistent throughout these years, and still working like he’s an undrafted free agent – that was really groundbreaking for me.”
It’s a stretch to say that Stephen Williams will have a groundbreaking effect on Seattle’s offense, but the door is certainly wide open.
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