They packed their bags and headed east from Odessa, Texas, to Dallas, just like in a scene from Friday Night Lights. Hundreds of friends and relatives of Detroit Lions wideout Roy Williams had gotten tickets to the Oct. 31 game against the Cowboys at Texas Stadium hoping to watch the former Permian High star in action. But Williams's body wasn't cooperating. He had sprained his left ankle in a Week 4 win over the Atlanta Falcons, and it hadn't felt right since. What should have been a festive homecoming turned into a disappointment: Williams was inactive for the 31--21 Lions loss.
Williams considers that game the low point of a frustrating rookie season. He had never been significantly injured during his standout career at Permian and as an All-America at Texas, but now he has been jinxed twice. The ankle hobbled him for at least six games, and during that time he developed plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which continues to plague him.
For those who've forgotten, Williams was the league's most impressive rookie in the season's first month, before Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger started to shine. In the Lions' first four games Williams caught 20 passes and had four touchdowns as Detroit got off to a 3--1 start. If he had been healthy, the Lions (5--9) have no doubt that their offense, which was ranked 30th in the league entering last weekend, would have been more productive. "People think I'm making excuses when I say this, but [quarterback] Joey Harrington has mostly been throwing to receivers who've only been here one or two years," Williams says. "Once I'm healthy and [second-year wideout] Charles Rogers is back [he was lost on Detroit's third snap of the season with a broken right collarbone], we'll see what defenses can throw at us."
Williams should be the player whom defenses worry about most. Despite his injuries, he leads Detroit in receptions (47), yards (722) and touchdowns (seven). At 6'2" and 212 pounds he has breathtaking speed, graceful body control and adhesively sure hands. "His physical nature is what makes him so tough to handle," Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said after Williams caught nine passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Philadelphia on Sept. 26
Williams, who in a 28--27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday had seven catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns, has grown accustomed to stunning people with his physical talents. Consider how he handled his predraft workout before more than 100 NFL scouts, executives and coaches last April. He was coming off a difficult senior season at Texas, during which his yardage numbers dropped while playing within the confines of a mediocre offense. Several scouts considered Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald and USC's Mike Williams to be better prospects. Certain that he was as good as those two, Williams, who was all-state in track at Permian High, ran his first 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds and his second in a blistering 4.36. Though the Lions had used the second pick in the 2003 draft on Rogers, they were so impressed with Williams that they took him with the seventh selection.
"I always expected to be comfortable coming in here," he says. "It all depended on how fast I could pick up the offense. I still make mistakes, but I also can minimize them with my talent. I've always felt that once I get on the field, my instincts take over."
The question now is how good Williams can be. He thinks about that often. He has learned how to run crisper routes and how to set up defensive backs. He's also excited about the emergence of Kevin Jones (box), a fellow rookie who in the second half of the season has sparked Detroit's formerly feeble rushing attack. "The funny thing is that we used to not be able to run," Williams says. "Now we can't pass."
With a healthy Williams, don't be surprised if the Lions do both in 2005. "Roy has brought an explosiveness to our offense that had been lacking," says Harrington. "I don't even think he realizes how great he can be."
Roy Williams isn't the only rookie who's wondering what could've been this season. Here are three other high draft picks who were hobbled early on:
DeAngelo Hall, CB, Falcons The eighth pick in the draft out of Virginia Tech, Hall missed Atlanta's first six games after a preseason hip injury. He got his first NFL interception on Nov. 28 against the Saints.
Julius Jones,RB, Cowboys The Notre Dame product missed eight of the first nine games with shoulder and rib injuries, but in his last five games Jones (above), a second-round choice, has run for 597 yards and six scores.
Kevin Jones,RB, Lions An ankle injury sidelined the former Virginia Tech star for a game and limited him in two others, but Jones, the 30th pick in the draft, has run for 100 or more yards in three of his last five games.