It’s been a long time since the Buffalo Bills had a true number one receiver. Since the days of Andre Reed and Eric Moulds, they’ve been looking for a dominant force out wide. Recently, Lee Evans was a playmaker, as was Steve Johnson and Peerless Price. None, however, a true number one. That includes Duke Williams.
Williams has taken an untraditional route to Buffalo. It’s involved a community college, a cup of coffee at Auburn, a summer with the Los Angeles Rams, and most recently, stardom in the Canadian Football League.
Now, Williams is pursuing a second chance in the National Football League. So far, he’s giving the front office at One Bills Drive something to think about.
How did Williams end up in Buffalo?
Probably a question many players, especially from those that grew up in the south like Williams, ask themselves: How did I end up in Buffalo? Which is fair. While Buffalo is a great city, it gets cold. Sometimes too cold.
Williams, who grew up in Louisiana, didn’t grow up around the cold and snow like native western New Yorkers. He did have an opportunity to experience it during his time in Canada, but the winters in Buffalo aren’t for the faint of heart. At the same time, the path Williams has taken to the NFL proves he can cut his teeth through any adversity, whether it be on the field or shoveling himself through a five-foot snowdrift.
The road got bumpy while playing for Auburn. After being deemed a five-star recruit at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Williams spent the fall of 2014 playing for Tigers before being dismissed from the team after a bar fight in 2015.
Fast forward to February of 2016, Williams accepted an invitation to compete at the NFL Combine. An opportunity someone may not have gotten just a couple of years later due to the league’s strict policy on allowing players with character concerns compete at the showcase. Regardless, Williams got his opportunity to show his stuff to all 32 teams.
Measuring in at 6-2, 229 pounds, Williams ran a 4.72 40-yard dash and jumped just 30 inches in the vertical. For an NFL receiver, those numbers show two things to scouts: you can’t win with speed, and we can’t rely on you to win a jump ball.
Well, maybe we’re all wrong there. Even Williams himself could look at those numbers and know they’re not good enough, but numbers only tell a part of a story. A story one NFC personnel member thought was just half of it.
“I can tell you that he burned all of his bridges over there (Auburn). He’s a selfish, me-first guy and I don’t think he’s trustworthy in the locker room at all. He didn’t compete at all this year. I wouldn’t draft him in any round.” — NFC Director of Personnel
Williams ended up going undrafted before signing on with the Rams and getting cut after the preseason. However, this may be where things took a positive turn for the first time since his days in community college.
CFL allowed Williams to shine
Once cut from the NFL and after getting no bites from the other 31 teams, Williams attended a CFL tryout in Las Vegas. There, he impressed an Edmonton Eskimos scout enough to earn a tryout.
Williams quickly caught on. In 2017, his first season in the CFL, he caught 46 passes for 715 yards and four touchdowns. With a season under his belt, 2018 is the year that changed everything. All 88 receptions, 1,579 yards (league-high) and 11 touchdowns caught the eye of the NFL.
Buffalo wasted little time. They signed Williams to a contract in early January.
Can Williams makes the Bills roster?
Looking at Williams’ story, you want him to succeed. While he had some discipline issues in the past, he proved throughout his two seasons in the CFL that he can be a professional. And everyone deserves a second chance, especially when his incidents can be chalked up as being “young and dumb.”
The situation for Williams couldn’t be better in Buffalo. While Bills general manager Brandon Beane tries to find himself a number one, the roster is filled with a lot of twos, threes, and fours. A common theme up and down the receiver room is size; the top four roster guys on the roster are 5’8, 5’10, 6’1, and 5’11. Those receivers are Cole Beasley, John Brown, Zay Jones, and Andre Roberts, respectively.
Williams is the biggest receiver in the room. And he proved why it’s an asset last Friday night against the Detroit Lions.
Duke Williams = Bully Szn ? @BuffaloBills
— NFL (@NFL) August 24, 2019
With the exception of Jones, who could be moved before the week one matchup against the New York Jets, Brown, Beasley, and Roberts are locks to make the roster. Across the board, most believe Williams to be the fifth or sixth guy in line. The former seems more like it after getting 37 snaps and some work in the red-zone with the first-team offense on Friday night.
Less than a year removed from Canadian football, Williams looks to have a real shot at making the 53-man roster. Will he someday prove to be a number one guy? That’s a stretch, although he’s shown he can be that guy both in college and in the CFL. What he does with the Bills and this new opportunity is up to him.