When the Panthers used their top pick in April's draft to select
Williams has been the team's starter throughout the season and has thrived in the smash mouth attack. He's seventh on the rushing list with 955 yards, including five 100-yard games. He's also scored in five consecutive games, running his season total to 11.
His 16.1 carries per game are fewer than any rusher in the top 10 other than the Texans'
"He is the kind of runner that you want on your team," said an AFC personnel executive. "He is explosive and instinctive. He is strong enough to take the pounding, but also has the speed and quickness to take it the distance. People always talk about wanting 'big' backs, but he is the type of back that you build your team around. "
But what took so long? At least one Panthers official attributes it to patience, saying, "He had a horrible offensive line in college, so he had to create his big play opportunities. When he entered the league, he still didn't trust the offensive line and would try to bounce everything outside instead of staying with the play. As he has matured, he has learned how to stay on track and let his big plays come to him."
Williams, the Panthers' top pick in 2006, sat behind former starter
"There were questions about his toughness and ability to handle the workload," said a Panthers' official. "He wasn't a true inside runner, and didn't finish his runs with authority... I think that he has exceeded everyone's expectations in those aspects."
"He is a really good player," said an AFC personnel director. "He is really starting to come on. He has a strong nose for the ball and is an outstanding tackler. He is one of their biggest playmakers, but no one talks about him."
The Bucs' second round pick in 2005 leads the team with 95 tackles and also has three sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery this season. He showed signs of becoming a headliner last year when he led the team with 169 tackles and had three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions.
"I think that he is a great middle linebacker," said Bucs' head coach
Ruud's penchant for playmaking has scouts comparing him to another outstanding young linebacker in the NFC.
"He reminds me of Lofa Tatupu," said an AFC personnel director. "He is not the most athletic or explosive player, but he is always around the ball. He has great instincts and football intelligence. He has a great understanding of their scheme and where he fits."
If Ruud continues to lead the Bucs' defense with his timely playmaking, it would not be a surprise to see him supplant Tatupu for a spot on the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.
The season-ending suspension of
"They will miss Plaxico's big play ability," said an AFC scout. "They don't have anyone on their roster capable of doing what he does on a consistent basis."
While Giants' supporters will cite the team's ability to overcome the loss of
Of course, the Giants will tout
"Toomer is still productive," said an AFC scout. "But he is not dynamic enough to be their number one receiver down the stretch. Hixon is an interesting player, but he is not in Plaxico's class. He is more of a possession receiver. He has flashed some good things when he has been on the field, but it will be interesting to see if he can be a consistent producer when it gets tight down the stretch."
The Giants have handled the loss of several key players on the way to the league's best record, but the dismissal of their troubled star receiver will eventually keep them from being "back-to-back" champions.