Saturday, February 02, 2008

Financial Considerations Might Compel Vikings to Retain Williamson

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.

5 comments:

o_swas said...

VG, can you comment on what you know about Williamson's attitude and work ethic? By all published accounts he did work very hard in the offseason to improve his eye-hand coordination. If he's truly been a diligent worker I'd want to see him succeed, whether it be here or elsewhere.

Also, related to your comments about putting him in the slot: I seem to remember (and correct me if I'm wrong) that Troy had some success as a rookie catching slants and then racking up nice RAC yards (thanks to his speed) during his rookie seasons. Maybe they just need to decide that he can't catch over-the-shoulder bombs and needs to be put in position to make RAC yards.

Vikes Geek said...

O,

I don't think too many people around Winter Park are going to lose sleep if Williamson doesn't make it with the team. He tends toward petulance when he isn't starting and has demonstrated immaturity rather than professionalism in the face of adversity.

Williamson did work hard last off-season by some standards, but not by the standards of, say, Cris Carter. For the money that he is being paid, the lesser standard is unacceptable.

The workload issue is directly related to Williamson's work ethic in the face of adversity. With nobody really pulling for him anymore, there is little inclination for the team to use him in different sets. The preference, it now seems, is to simply let some other team/the street deal with him.

Williamson might have done better had the Vikings used him in the slot. He did have some limited success in that role, but never had much of an opportunity in Childress' system. Why that was the case is not quite clear, as Childress had invested quite a bit of time in Williamson over the first two off-seasons that Childress was with the club.

VG

sportsdad10 said...

VG, Is there any truth to the rumors that Minnesota is interested in Javon Walker? This would seem like the perfect opportunity to give both Walker and Williamson a change of scenery if a deal could be worked out. I would hate to see Minnesota use up a 1st round pick on a receiver when Defensive End or Safety should be a higher priority.
Also, I just found your Blog a couple months ago and have enjoyed reading it. Keep it up.
sportsdad10

bgman said...

My take on Troy is he seems to be a decent human being, but his heart's not really in football. Just look at him as a kick returner. He just wants to get some yards before being tackled instead of trying to make something happen.

Plus he has no confidence in his ability to catch. He reminds me of the Little Leaguer stuck in right field who hopes all game that a fly ball won't be hit his way so he won't drop it.

Will a change of scenery help him? Not really because he doesn't seem to have any drive or competitiveness. Given that he was a 1st round pick and is one of the fastest WRs in the league, he'll be on someone's roster next year, and will at least be invited to camp with a 3rd team after he fails with his next team. But no one is going to give anything to the Vikings for him -- they'll wait for him to be released.

And he will be released. I don't hear anything from the Vikings brass that indicates that they foresee him contributing to this team.

Zygi is no Red McCombs. He'll take the financial hit of letting Troy go. And, unlike Jackson, Childress/Speilman don't need him to stick around to validate their evaluation ability.

So what's the incentive to keep him? They have two quality WRs in Wade and Rice, and potentially another reliable receiver in Allison. Look for them to sign at least one veteran starter (not a splashy free agent, more like last year's addition of Bobby Wade) and a #4 or #5 WR through either the draft or free agency.

If that happens, Williamson has to be gone just to clear a roster spot.

Vikes Geek said...

BG,

It's not necessarily a matter of whether Zygi will spare the coin. Instead, it's a more significant matter of whether the Vikings can afford to let Williamson go and still have enough money to sign a couple high end free agents. If the Vikings cut ties with Williamson this year, Williamson's bonus accelerates to 2008 and is applied against the Vikings' 2008 cap figure. Already fairly low in cap room relative to other teams, the resulting $7 million or so hit could put the Vikings on the sidelines in free agency this year, even if they want to be active.

VG