RB Cadillac Williams (left) is the same sort of hard-working player as WR Michael Clayton
Cadillac Williams has a tough act to follow.
We could be talking about the last three running backs to be drafted fifth overall, as Williams was on Saturday by the Buccaneers. After all, LaDainian Tomlinson (2001), Jamal Lewis (2000) and Ricky Williams (1999) have played a combined total of 13 NFL seasons – and counting, at least for Tomlinson and Lewis – and have a combined per-season average of 1,385 rushing yards.
But we're not.
And we could be talking about the great Auburn running backs of the past, as Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden did while introducing Williams to the Bay area on Monday. Gruden, a student of the game, threw out such names as Bo Jackson, Lionel James and Brent Fullwood while describing how productive Williams and his Auburn backfield mate Ronnie Brown had been last season. Jackson, in particular, was a star on the NFL level, though his name may not resonate real happily with Buccaneer fans.
But we're not.
There is another more recent and perhaps more relevant comparison that Williams is not going to be able to avoid. In fact, it came up during his introduction on Monday and probably will be made repeatedly until Williams' rookie season is complete.
Williams' tough act to follow is that of wide receiver Michael Clayton, the Buccaneers' home run of a first-round pick last year. Clayton put together one of the best rookie seasons by a receiver in NFL history and appears to be a critical piece of the Bucs' foundation for the near future. The Buccaneers selected Williams with the hopes that he would join Clayton in that foundation, though it might be unfair to expect the same wildly successful debut season.
Still, the comparisons are there. Both players might have gone even higher in the draft if their respective positions weren't so deep that year. Both are hard-working, team-oriented, do-anything types. Both play positions that often allow for instant contributions.
And, as Gruden pointed out on Monday, both were leaders on extremely successful college teams. In fact, the two share undefeated final seasons, Clayton at LSU in 2003 and Williams at Auburn in 2004.
"That's important," said Gruden. "Last year, we brought a guy in who had similar traits, coming off a 13-0 season. I consider the SEC a great level of competition, and I think both guys dominated at the level of competition that they played.
If Williams is to follow Clayton's path, he'll need to make a good impression on the practice field right away. Though it was injuries and a holdout that eventually cleared the way to a starting job for Clayton last year, the team was comfortable in making that move because the receiver had been so consistently outstanding in practice. Part of that was a willingness to work as hard as necessary to absorb Gruden's offense.
Williams is the type to show the same sort of dedication.
"I know people at Auburn and so do some of our coaches and scouts, and what this guy is every single day is a warrior," said Gruden. "This guy is going to be the last guy to leave, he's going to be the first guy there and he's going to make plays. Off the field, he's a guy who you want to build your football team around. He's the kind of guy who can go a long way in this business."
Gruden is careful not to saddle either player with too many immediate expectations. As phenomenally as his rookie season went, Clayton is still relatively new to the league and will need to continue to working hard to fulfill his obvious potential. Still, it's clear the Bucs have high hopes of building around these two and other young players.
"We need to get some guys on offense who have this potential to be great," said Gruden. "I'm not going to put any other predictions on the table today. I think Clayton has a chance to be a great player. He had a great start, but I think over the next seven, eight, nine, 10 years of his career he can lean on who he is, what he believes in, his self-motivation to push him to a level of greatness. I think [Williams] has similar traits. He does have a lot of ability, and I think his unselfishness, the fact that these guys, they don't care about the stat sheet, they want to win puts him in a real positive light the way I see it."
Williams will need the opportunity to play that Clayton had in order to put together a rookie season of any similarity, and the Bucs still have several other proven backs on the depth chart, including Mike Alstott, Michael Pittman and Charlie Garner. Of course, as Gruden said on Monday, you don't spend the fifth overall pick on a player in order to turn him into a situational player. At a position at which rookies can often step right into big roles, Williams should get his opportunity.
Reflecting the selflessness he showed at Auburn, however, Williams is simply planning to do whatever he is asked.
"I'm just looking forward to playing with some of these guys, Mike Alstott, Michael Pittman, Mike Clayton, Brian Griese," he said. "They have already contributed here, therefore, I'm just coming in to do whatever is possible to help this team win ball games."