meet the cubs: derrick williams

>> 5.12.2009

Here is what you need to know about Penn State WR Derrick Williams.  To me, that Rivals profile is the most intriguing, damning, and promising thing about the Lions' latter third-round draft pick.  Coming out of high school, Derrick Williams was ranked by Rivals as the #1 overall recruit in the country . . . as an "ATH", or athlete.  This designation is typically used when an astonishing athlete is utilized all over the field in high school, and so doesn't have a pure position--typically when a kid plays QB in high school to terrorize defenses, but doesn't project as a D-I signal caller.  At Eleanor Roosevelt High, Williams played at least a little bit of basically every offensive skill position, as well as some cornerback.  At an eyelash under six feet, running a mindblowing 4.37 40-yard dash at a Nike camp before his junior year in high school, there was no doubt that Williams had all the physical tools to dominate the college game, no matter what college he chose to attend.

Unsurprisingly, there was something of a to-do surrounding Williams' recruitment and committment.  Penn State?  At the nadir of the recent Paterno era; after four losing seasons in five years?  The #1 overall recruit in the country, a phenomenal spread option quarterback prospect, and a multi-talented athlete?  Exactly the kind of kid that Paterno "couldn't" or "wouldn't" recruit?  Penn State?

Yes.  Williams' father, Dwight, explained:

"This is a decision we're going to make, and it's not just about football," Dwight Williams said. "We feel like there's a strong commitment there, not only for athletes and their athletic ability, but there's a commitment for people to be successful in life. People can laugh or do whatever they want, but this is our decision."

The decision thus made, Derrick Williams went to Penn State (over Florida, Texas, et. al.), and immediately made an impact.  With 22 receptions for 289 yards and a score, and 22 carries for 105 yards and three TDs, Williams's pure physical talent made him a contributor.  A broken arm suffered against Michigan cut his debut season short, but there were high expectations for the remainder of his seasons at Penn State.

Unfortunately, he never quite lived up to them.  Over the next three seasons, Derrick Williams played in every single game, and started all but one--and continued to produce largely at the same rate.  His sophomore year, he hauled in 40 catches for 440 yards and 1 TD, while carrying 36 times for 145 yards and another score.   His junior year, the recieving saw an uptick: 55 catches for 529 yards and three scores--but the rushing fell off; just 16 carries for 101 yards and one score.  In his senior year, he really did well on the ground, getting 43 carries for 243 yards and three touchdowns--but the recieving cooled off again, to 44 catches for 485 and 4 TDs.

Now, there are some very encouraging trends there; the touches and yards went generally up from year to year, and the TDs went WAY up his senior year.  Also, none of these stats include his return yardage or touchdowns, which were significant (115 punt returns for 721 and 3 TDs, 50 kick returns for 1,115 yards and 2 TD).  But really, the stats alone show how Williams was used: as a "slash" type weapon; a player who's great with the ball in space, but not necessarily great at just getting it done as a position player.  That role doesn't particularly translate well in the NFL.  Devin Hester, Reggie Bush, Peter Warrick . . . these players have tried to make hay in the margins in the NFL, trying to translate great open-field ability into productive north-south offensive play.  They've all been variably successful for varying periods. In my opinion, Derrick Williams' production in college points to a low ceiling for him in the NFL; he'll be never be an elite wideout like his 6'-0", 194#, 4.40 speed* would suggest.

The good news in all this?  The Lions have no expectations that Derrick Williams will develop into an elite wideout.  They don't particularly care that he does not boast amazing hands, nor incredible strength, nor surgically precise routes.  He's an athlete, a playmaker, and a gamebreaking return man--and that's exactly what they want him to be.  The question isn't whether he can overcome his lack of production as a college WR to become an excellent pro WR--the question is, can he be exactly what he was in college, in the pros?  The answer, as always, is tough to divine.  Quoth the Grandmaster:

“We need a returner. My philosophy on special teams is not to be safe and to find a guy that can catch the ball and fair catch it. We’re going to try to get some explosiveness, try to score. So a guy like Derrick Williams brought great value there.”

Issue #1 is his speed.  Tremendously fast for a high school player, it appears as though Williams got no faster in six years.  It's possible that the Nike camp time was somewhat inflated (er, deflated?), but from the summer before your junior year of high school and the spring after your senior year of college, you typically grow, strengthen, and mature physically.  To show zero improvement whatsoever is a little odd.  *By the way, to clear up some confusion, Williams cut a horrid 4.58 at the combine, then (rather lamely, I thought at the time) blamed it on a case of the flu.  However, he proved me--and the doubters--wrong by cutting a 4.37 and 4.41 at PSU's Pro Day.  Moreover, the straight-line track speed doesn't necessarily translate to pad-laden in-game speed.  For proof, I offer the one YouTube highlight reel:

We saw a lot of very very positive things on that highlight reel.  Williams displays great vision, burst, and instincts.  He shows a knack for finding daylight, setting up his blockers, and hitting a seam.  There's a wonderful quality he displays of running north-south unless he has to make a move, and then making just enough of a move to get back to running north-south.  That's an absolutely vital skill in a return man, and one that you don't often see in college.  

Unfortunately there are two things we didn't see him display on that tape: great hands, and elite speed.  That might sound a little odd, as he just clearly ran past a lot of defenders--but if you watch carefully, you'll see he's not covering ground at a breathtaking rate.  Skip to the 0:58 mark and watch carefully.  As the play progresses, note his progress as compared to the other white helmets.  After he hits the first pile, you'll note that he doesn't gain much ground on the players around him, even after he's broken into the open field.  Once the way is clear, he should hit another gear and streak to the house--but instead, he flies in formation with the tight ends and linebackers assigned to block for him.  Now of course, this doesn't mean that he's not faster than those guys, it just means that his shorts-and-t-shirt speed doesn't always translate to the field.  It should go without saying that the overall speed of the NFL blows away the college game . . . can he even be effective as a returner without that top gear?

Actually, deep speed might be the single most overrated attribute of pro prospects.  Especially as regards returners--there's a reason why "kick return" was listed as a separate ability on Madden for years.  Return ability isn't a value that can be derived from knowing a player's "speed" and "agility" ratings; it's something else entirely.  It's vision, it's instincts, it's an awareness of lanes and holes and angles.  Even without true home run speed, I'm pretty confident that Derrick Williams can step right in and be a very good NFL return man, maybe even a great one.  Most Lions fans over the age of 25 or so still light a candle every night for legendary returner Mel Gray, whose moves were electrifying, return averages through the roof, and return TD numbers pedestrian.  Just because Mel rarely took kicks or punts all the way to the house, didn't mean that he wasn't outstanding--nor did it invalidate the fact that he was an enormous asset to the Lions while he played.  Field position is extremely important, especially for a young offense struggling with consistency and third-down conversions.

In fact, let's look at that for a minute.  If you look at the 2008 numbers, the Lions were the 23rd-ranked team in kick return yardage, with 21.8.  The #1 team, the Titans, averaged 25.4.  This might not sound like a lot, but the Lions were kicked to an NFL-high 83 times; an increase of 3.6 yards per kick return translates to 298.8 yards!  If we do the same for punt returns, the Lions were ranked 24th with an 8.0 yards-per average.  The #1 team, the Bills, averaged 15.5.  The Lions didn't exactly force many punts, but even with just 21 returns, that would be 157.5 yards' difference.  Now, don't get too excited over this number, because kick and punt returns are different disciplines, and there are a lot of factors other than "Madden KR Rating" that go into this . . . but that's a difference of 456.3 yards.  The Lions left over four entire football fields' worth of field position on the table, just by having a below-average return unit instead of a great one.

I would be very curious to see the percentage of 2008 Lions drives that contained more than three third-down conversions.  Further, I'd be willing to bet that the number of Lions drives that contained more than four first-down conversions could be enumerated with a single digit.  Just think about Jason Hanson's incredible season last year, where he hit 8 of 8 50-plus yard field goals.  How many of those 456.3 yards would be needed to scoot how many failed drives to within his prodigious range?  How many of those 456.3 yards would be needed to make how many field goals touchdowns?  How many of those 456.3 yards would be needed to keep the other team's offense off the field for one or two more crucial minutes?  How many of those 456.3 yards would translate into how many wins on an 0-16 team?  Food for thought . . .

Derrick Williams might or might not be a great return man.  What about being a wide reciever?  It's absolutely indisputable that the Lions need a true slot wideout.  With Mike Furrey off to the Browns, and Shaun McDonald joining the Steelers, the Lions have signed a slew of warm bodies.  They're all going to audition for the role of Wes Welker: the quick, opportunistic playmaker working in the space created by the elite deep threat working the deep outside routes.  Derrick Williams has the exact frame and toolset to absolutely explode in this role.  However, his hands and route-running will hold him back.  He does not appear to be a natural pass-catcher--and his role at Penn State backs that up.  When you are a 6'-0", 194-pound, 4.40 wideout who was the #1 overall high school prospect in the nation, and you are in your senior year at a marquee school, and they're still using you primarily on screens, draws, reverses, and kick returns . . . there must be some pretty big holes in your game.  Then again, several sources I've read have speculated that his toolset is better suited to the pro game.  That his "slash" nature isn't his nature at all--it's due to his college coaches trying to maximize what they got out of his talents while he was there--not maximize his ability to play the wide reciever position.  It's entirely possible that with NFL coaches (Scott Linehan, Shawn Jefferson) focussing him in on being the best slot reciever he can be, he can in fact be a great slot reciever.

However, with early word out of rookie minicamp being that he really struggled to catch the ball, I'm guessing not.  Of  all the picks I've reviewed so far, this is the one I'm most disappointed with.  I absolutely think that this is a position of need--in fact, in one mock draft I did, I selected UNC WR/KR Brandon Tate with that 3.18 pick; a player with a practically identical skill set and resume.  In real life, Tate went with the very next pick, the 3.19, to the New England Patriots.  Soon enough, history will judge who's better at talent scouting: the Lions' front office, or me and Bill Belicheck.

Yes, that was a joke.


Neil,  May 13, 2009 at 8:17 PM  

Ty, I think you and I see this pick pretty much the same way. If he gets it done as a return man, okay, I'm good with that. But, I think people who are expecting him to be Calvin Johnson's complement and be a dependable receiver could end up being pretty disappointed.

Good breakdown though. I've liked all of your breakdowns thus far. Keep up the good work.

Ty,  May 13, 2009 at 9:06 PM  


Yeah, to me it's unquestionable that the Lions needed this kind of player at about this draft position--a slot wideout who's an explosive returner. I mostly just question if this was the right player . . .

You're doing a great job with your breakdowns, too; I'm intimidated by both your quality and quantity! Very entertaining, as always.


TimT,  May 13, 2009 at 9:38 PM  

I've got to admit that I'm a bit worried about this one, too. Mayock's comments about his pro-day had me concerned from the start, and his fielding troubles at rookie camp has me doubly troubled.

Ty,  May 13, 2009 at 10:09 PM  

See, this is the reason I advocated getting two returners; between Derrick Williams and Aaron Brown, I'd hope that one of those two guys should be able to make an impact.

The really good news with Williams is that he and Bryant Johnson are actually good friends from when Williams was being recruited by Penn State. Apparently Johnson has been eager to show Williams the ropes, and help acclimate him to the league.


Imperical Evidence,  May 13, 2009 at 10:12 PM  

I think Curry will win the slot receiver position , so this pick still bothers me , since it was before any OL or DL.
You made my point for me , he is not Devin Hester.

Ty,  May 13, 2009 at 11:15 PM  

Well, there certainly was a time when Ronald Curry was showing a lot of potential; obviously getting away from Oakland would do anybody good. Still, Ronald Curry was supposed to replace Jerry Rice--he's LONG removed from those days.

Anonymous,  May 19, 2009 at 3:08 AM  

just some food for thought about curry he actually had his best year when cullpeper was throwing him the ball if i remember correctly. I think williams can eventually win the slot job but curry will start giving williams time to learn while returning kicks.

Ty,  May 19, 2009 at 7:10 PM  

Just to be clear, I'm not writing off Curry completely. But, a lot of fans are pencilling Curry in at the #3 spot, and seem to be counting on him to be a major factor--all because of the potential he flashed in 2004. His numbers, even at their peak, were not Earth-shattering:;_ylt=AjRRvjLosoytriYqbXEgPhf.uLYF

He put up good-for-a-slot-guy numbers as a #2 on a horrible team . . . and was first hurt and then benched in 2008. I'm willing to call that an outlier based on the wackiness on Oakland, but to pretend like Curry has the slot role locked up is expecting too much--especially given how the Lions have been signing and releasing and drafting and churning WRs like crazy, hoping some will stick.


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