In late Winter of 2005, the Minnesota Vikings cleaned house of the team's most expensive luxury, wide-receiver Randy Moss. On the verge of having a portion of his remaining contract guaranteed, Moss was a player that Red McCombs could not bear to keep even as the former Vikings' owner put the finishing language into his $625 million sale of the Vikings to current Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf.
The Vikings shipped Moss to the Oakland Raiders for middle linebacker Napoleon Harris and the seventh pick in the 2005 NFL draft. Harris stuck with the Vikings for two seasons before departing to Kansas City as a free agent at the end of the 2006 season, finishing with one awful season and one decent season with the Vikings.
That left the Vikings with but one remaining commodity from the trade of the franchises' most talented offensive player, the team's seventh pick in the 2005 draft. After much anxiousness in the Vikings' draft room, and apparently too-little dissension, the Vikings used that seventh overall pick to select South Carolina wide-receiver Troy Williamson.
Despite limited catches for limited yardage in three seasons at South Carolina, the Vikings were high on Williamson due to what Vikings' scouts characterized as "blazing speed" at the NFL combines. Former Vikings' head coach Mike Tice excused Williamson's modest college numbers as the consequence of Williamson having played in a run-first offense under former Gamecocks head coach Lou Holtz. "Wait and see," Tice admonished the doubters. "Wait and see."
After waiting three seasons, Vikings' fans are no longer alone in their jaded assessment of the Vikings' former first-round draft pick.
In 2007, after undergoing corrective eye surgery and working with professionals at the Nike hand-eye coordination clinic, Williamson purportedly was ready to improve on what theretofore had been an abysmal start to what now seemed destined to be a short-lived NFL career.
For his part, Vikings' head coach Brad Childress cautioned skeptics of the wide-receiver by reminding them that many had had doubts about the Vikings' linebacking corps in 2006 and that that corps of players had rebounded for a poor showing in 2005, and several years back. Both Wilf and Childress commented often about the changes in Williamson's practice play with the most-oft heard line being that Williamson had 13,000 passes thrown to him during the off-season (no mention has ever been made of the resulting completion percentage).
If fan hopes were not exactly high heading into 2007, they nevertheless were being pushed toward optimism by the Vikings' head coach and owner. What followed, unfortunately, was more of the same old Williamson.
In 2007, Williamson recorded just 18 receptions for 240 yards and one touchdown. Both Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson, the back to whom the Vikings often refused to throw owing to unwarranted concerns about his ability to catch the ball, had more receptions than did Williamson.
Williamson's 2007 numbers boosted his three-year totals with the Vikings to 79 receptions for 1,067 yards and three touchdowns. That's one less touchdown than Vikings' rookie wide-receiver Sidney Rice recorded in limited action in 2007. And it points to why the hedging money is on the Vikings releasing Williamson this off-season.
Whether Williamson stays or goes, however, is not yet decided at Winter Park, though the inclination exists not only to show Williamson out, but also to offer a swift kick in the hopes of shaking loose some of the money that Williamson has stolen from the organization over the past three years.
The team's general sentiment was offered up best by fellow wide-receiver Bobby Wade at the end of last season. Responding to questions regarding Williamson's future with the Vikings, Wade suggested that Williamson might benefit from a change of scenery. On a team well-coached not to offer public responses to such questions, Wade's retort was telling.
The difficulty for the Vikings, however, is two-fold. One issue is that Williamson has a talent that cannot be taught--speed--while lacking a skill the lack of which is confounding to even the least skilled backyard streetballer--the inability to catch balls when unencumbered. Like Tarvaris Jackson's difficulties finding the proper balance between too much and too little air on deep passes, Williamson's inability to catch well-thrown passes when he is unhindered simply defies logic in the minds of observers. That makes his speed still beguiling, particularly on a team that lacks speed at wide-receiver.
While Williamson has been a certified first-round bust for the Vikings, there is another considerable factor that could mitigate in favor of the Vikings keeping the wide-receiver for at least one more year, namely, Williamson's seven-year (2005) contract that includes a $13 million bonus.
Even if the Vikings cut Williamson before his 2008 salary kicks in, the team would still be on the hook for a pro-rated portion of Williamson's 2005 signing bonus, a sum equal to approximately $7 million. With a league average of approximately $20 million in available cap space, releasing Williamson in 2008 would thus leave the Vikings with very little money with which to attract any meaningful free agents, both in actual and in relative terms.
Add to the cap concerns the fact that, despite his considerable short-comings, Williamson still possesses greater speed than do any of his wide-receiver teammates, and it might not only be cheaper for the Vikings to keep Williamson from a salary cap perspective, but also prudent to take a chance on a guy with speed and merely a need to overcome a nearly incomprehensible handicap.
With less than great hands, Williamson should still be a threat in the slot. That he has not been is largely the result of the Vikings' near-absolute refusal to rely on the slot-passing game. With improved hands, Williamson could even become a terror.
No matter whether Williamson progresses as a first-round pick should--something he has already failed, in spades, to accomplish--the real question for the Vikings this off-season in determining whether to retain Williamson should be whether he has shown enough to keep on the squad as a third receiver with promise. Given his limited salary figure and high bonus figure, that question might be answered better from a financial angle than from the perspective of legitimate promise.
Up Next: Alternatives to Williamson. Plus, other comings and goings.