Early in what would prove to be a fantastic debut campaign, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams admitted one personal goal for the season: Win the NFL's Rookie of the Year award.
Williams moved one step closer to meeting that goal on Friday when the NFL announced its five nominees for that coveted award. Williams, the most impactful pass-catcher in this year's class, was one of the choices, along with St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford, Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden, New England cornerback Devin McCourty and Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
To become Rookie of the Year, Williams will need to win a fan vote on NFL.com, which began on Friday and will continue through February 1. The winner will be revealed at a press conference on February 3 at the site of this year's Super Bowl in North Texas.
Click here to go to NFL.com and cast your vote. You may vote more than once.
The third pick of the fourth round in the 2010 draft and the 101st player selected overall, Williams is the only one of the five nominees who was not drafted in the first round. Bradford and Suh were the first two selections, Haden went seventh and McCourty was chosen 27th. That didn't stop Williams from quickly making a name for himself when the season began.
After winning a starting job during the offseason training program and securing it during training camp, Williams opened all 16 games for the Buccaneers and was their most dynamic receiver from Day One. In Tampa Bay's season-opening win over Cleveland, he caught five passes for 30 yards, including an acrobatic touchdown catch with 18 seconds left in the first half. On the play, Williams reached behind him to tip the ball away from Haden, then spun 180 degrees and made a toe-tapping catch of the deflection at the back of the end zone.
Williams gained his first Rookie of the Week nomination after that game, which would begin an early season trend. He also caught touchdown passes in the Buccaneers' next two wins – at Carolina in Week Two and at Cincinnati in Week Five – and each time he was nominated for the Weekly award. He gained his fourth and fifth nominations after the Bucs' Week Seven win over Bradford and the Rams and their narrow Week Nine loss at Atlanta.
Williams' five Rookie of the Week nominations tied Bradford and Kansas City's Eric Berry for the most selections during the season. Suh and the Buccaneers' own LeGarrette Blount were the only other players who gained at least four nominations. In fact, had Blount not been so hot down the stretch – he led all NFL players with 511 rushing yards over the last five weeks – Williams probably would have earned another nomination or two as he also finished the season strong.
In fact, though all of Williams' Rookie of the Week nominations came in the first nine weeks of the season, his performance during the final weeks of a heated NFC playoff chase was critical in the Bucs' ability to stay alive until the final hours of the season. Over the last five weeks, Williams caught 20 passes for 263 yards and, most importantly, five touchdowns.
Finding the end zone proved to be what Williams did best in his debut season. His 11 touchdown catches were not only a rookie record for the Buccaneers, they were the most by any player in franchise history. Williams broke the single-season mark of 10 set by Joey Galloway in 2005, scoring the final touchdown in Tampa Bay's 23-13 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 17.
In the NFL as a whole, Williams tied for 12th in overall touchdowns and tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns. The only receivers in the league to score more often than Williams were 2011 Pro Bowl selections Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings and Calvin Johnson.
Williams led all rookies in touchdown catches, edging New England tight end Rob Gronkowski by one. In the receptions and receiving yardage categories, the breakout Buccaneer finished with much larger leads thanks to his totals of 65 catches for 964 yards.
The next closest pass-catcher to Williams was Detroit running back Jahvid Best, who had 58 receptions. Among wideouts only, the next player on the list was Cincinnati's Jordan Shipley, with 52.
Williams tied for 19th overall in the NFL with his 964 yards, and no other rookie at any position finished in the top 50. Next on the list was Shipley, with 600 yards. Williams also proved to be one of the best big-play threats in the game, as evidenced by his yards-per-catch rate. Among the top 50 pass-catchers in the NFL, Williams finished seventh with an average of 14.8 yards per reception.
The NFL has been presenting a Rookie of the Year award, chosen by fan vote, since 2002. Williams could become the second Buccaneer to take the honor, following running back Cadillac Williams in 2005. Other previous winners include Jeremy Shockey, Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young and Adrian Peterson.
The Associated Press also gives out two Rookie of the Year awards, one for the best Offensive newcomer and one for the best Defensive newcomer. Cadillac Williams and fellow running back Warrick Dunn (1997) are former winners for the Buccaneers.