Earnest Graham says he's happy to play fullback, if that's what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers end up wanting him to do this fall.
And why would the Buccaneers want that – or perhaps a combo fullback/tailback role – given that Graham has proved he's a legitimate starting runner in the NFL?
Because Cadillac Williams is back. Completely back.
Williams was expected to play in 2009, after returning from his second major knee injury, surgery and about nine months of rehab. After all, he had already worked his way back on the field at the end of the 2008 season after making it back from an even more severe knee mishap. Beyond that, there weren't too many concrete expectations.
How much of Williams' explosive movement would return? How much of his speed? How much of a burden would the Bucs give him, with Graham and the newly-signed Derrick Ward also available to carry the ball? Would he hold up for a full season?
The answers are now in, of course. Williams was expected to work a lighter training camp load, perhaps every other day; instead, he barely missed a single practice. He was expected to be part of a rotation with Graham and Ward, and probably not the biggest part; instead he was the opening day starter and the team's leading ballcarrier, with 221 totes. He was expected to be used cautiously; instead, he played in all 16 games for the first time in his career.
By season's end, Williams had rushed for 823 yards, scored seven combined rushing and receiving touchdowns and even set a new career high with 217 receiving yards. The totality of his comeback was undoubtedly one of the Bucs' best stories in 2009. Williams said he had a lot of help getting there.
"First of all, I've got to thank God," he said. "It's just a blessing. Without him, I definitely couldn't have done it. But it was just hard work, determination and a lot of help from my family, people in the community and people in the organization. There were a lot of low points in my life during that time but a lot of people picked me up and I was inspired by it."
But if last year was about the comeback than 2010 is simply about being back. Williams says its time to stop thinking of him as that back who had two knee injuries.
"It's kind of just all behind me," he said after a recent OTA practice in which he took the majority of the tailback snaps with the first team. "I just approach my day as if those things never happened. I don't go out here worrying that this is going to happen or that is going to happen. Of course, I'm still continuing to work hard on lower-body things like that, but I'm pretty much over it."
Williams is entering his sixth season and he turned 28 in April. However, in what could only be considered a silver lining to two cloudy years, he has quite a bit less wear than some backs in his position might. Williams says he feels more like a third-year back, and he hopes his coaches see it the same way.
"I don't want them to go in as if, 'Let's be careful with this guy,'" said Williams. "When I tell people that I feel better than ever, that's the God's-honest truth."
So what does that mean for 2010? Well, the Bucs' running game as a whole was not where it was expected to be last year, largely because the team was too often playing catch-up. The Bucs still want to get all three of their primary backs involved in carrying the ball, so it's difficult to predict how many carries Williams will get. Given that he will have the benefit of his first fully healthy offseason in three years, though, it's also difficult to imagine Williams' production taking a step back. He certainly expects to put up his second career 1,000-yard season (he won NFL Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 after rushing for 1,181 yards) and one of his goals is to make his first Pro Bowl appearance.
"I know early on there in [last] season, they didn't know what to expect of me and were very cautious," said Williams. "But, man, I feel like I'm ready to carry a load and if that's what they want me to do I can. I feel like I'm kind of rejuvenated now. I'm going to put the past behind me as far as knees and everything. I just feel like I'm going to be very successful.
"Personally, of course my goals are to dominate, compete and be one of the best backs in this league. To do that, I'm going to have to produce big and that's what I'm looking to do. All of those goals – 1,000 yards, Pro Bowl – I'm excited. I feel like I'm back. All that's up in the air, but first things first is the team. We've got to win."