Roster-building these days in the NFL, with the league's passing-friendly rules, is all about finding one player who can really throw the ball and a few who can really catch it. Seven wide receivers were selected in the first round of last year's draft, and another half-dozen or so could come off the board in the first round of the draft Saturday.
The consensus league-wide seems to be that this year's group of draft-eligible wideouts isn't quite as good as last year's. But virtually everyone in the league covets the top two receivers in this class, Michigan's Braylon Edwards and former Southern California standout Mike Williams. Some teams have Edwards atop their draft boards as the best player available, and California quarterback Aaron Rodgers named Edwards when he was asked at the late-February NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis which player he thought, aside from himself, deserved to be the draft's top overall selection.
Mike Williams was dominant in his two seasons at Southern California, but he was forced to sit out last year after being denied entry in the 2004 draft.
(2002 Photo Anacleto Rapping -- Los Angeles Times)
"He's a specimen," said Rodgers, who had thrown passes to Edwards in a made-for-television skills competition taped in Miami prior to the combine. "He was one-handing my passes, which I hadn't seen before. He's quite an athlete."
Edwards, who had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons in four years at Michigan, was one of four players -- along with Rodgers, Utah quarterback Alex Smith and Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle -- who visited the San Francisco 49ers last week. The 49ers have the top overall choice Saturday. No matter what the 49ers do, Edwards likely will be a top-five selection, and Williams probably will be taken by the time the Minnesota Vikings, who have the seventh overall pick and need a wideout to replace the traded Randy Moss, are done choosing. Williams said at the combine that he had spoken to Vikings Coach Mike Tice about the possibility of being Moss's replacement.
Edwards and Williams have had a friendly rivalry, speaking fondly of one another during the pre-draft buildup. "He's a special player," Edwards said of Williams. "They come around once every so often, and he's one of them. He'll make the transition after a while, and I think he'll end up being a great player in the NFL."
Williams said: "I think Braylon is a great receiver. . . . There are a lot of good guys in this draft who are going to do some things in this league."
Edwards enters the league as a polished product both on and off the field. He is articulate and personable, and he reels off names and statistics easily when he is asked about any of the NFL teams that might draft him. At the combine, he spoke knowledgeably about the past glories of the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins.
"I'm a sports almanac," Edwards said. "I know basketball, football, college basketball, NASCAR, NHL. That's just how it is."
His father, Stan, played in the NFL for the Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions as a running back after playing in college at Michigan, and the younger Edwards has been around the pro game for much of his life.
"A lot of things that I see now and that I saw in college, a lot of drills and the way things are being taught, I saw those things when I was 12, 13, 14 years old," he said. "Just because my father had already been there, it helped me a lot. It guided me through college."
Edwards said he believes he can step into a team's lineup seamlessly as its No. 1 receiver just as several rookie wideouts, including the Lions' Roy Williams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Michael Clayton, did last season.
"You have to prepare like you're still that guy in college," Edwards said. "That's how I'm approaching it. I believe the guys that are successful look at it that way. . . . These guys came in and prepared themselves to be the next great thing, and it paid off for them."
Williams not only must make the transition to the NFL, he must knock the rust off his game after being forced to sit out last season. He was the victim in Maurice Clarett's legal tussle with the NFL. Williams, after helping USC to a national title as a sophomore, entered last year's draft after a federal judge's ruling in Clarett's lawsuit against the league temporarily opened the proceedings to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. But the NFL won its appeal of the decision and managed to keep Clarett and Williams out of the 2004 draft, and the NCAA denied USC's petition on Williams's behalf to have his collegiate eligibility restored.
Williams was left as a player without a team. He said he was bitter only briefly, and then set out to prepare for the NFL. He had the time, he says, to ready for his rookie season instead of simply preparing hurriedly to try to run a fast sprint to wow scouts and improve his draft position.
"With this year off," Williams said, "the biggest thing to my advantage was that I spent the last few months making the transition to the next level a lot easier, compared to just worrying about how fast I can run. . . . I think the biggest thing I'll bring to any team is a winning attitude. I play hard. I compete hard. I try to make plays. I try to be a good person in the media, toward my teammates, things like that. I try to bring back the game the way it used to be. Guys like Barry Sanders, they were very humble and put the team first and things like that. I think that's more of the approach I'll take to it. . . . I've had a lot of time to go over the situation."
NFL talent evaluators have few of the doubts about Williams that they have about the player with whom he will be forever linked, Clarett. "People have a pretty good idea about Mike Williams," Buffalo Bills Coach Mike Mularkey said.
Said Norm Chow, Williams's former offensive coordinator at USC who left the school this offseason to become the Tennessee Titans' offensive boss: "I think he'll be very successful. He's big. He's strong. He's talented. The college game was too easy for him. It really was."