The first two seasons of Mike Sims-Walker's career were filled with doubt, and reasonably so. The receiver endured more injuries and heartbreak than time spent on the football field. But that doubt has subsided with Walker becoming a playmaker for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Ranking 10th in the league in offense at 368.9 yards per game, the Jaguars passing attack is led by Sims-Walker's 39 receptions for 603 yards. Those figures may not measure to the NFL's elite receivers, but his five touchdowns and three 100-yard games have opponents noticing.
The Bills travel to Jacksonville Sunday, and George Wilson is one player game planning for Walker's exploits.
"He's definitely made plays and got a lot of touchdowns for them this year," George Wilson said. "(He) can go across the middle, block in the running game and be physical with his man. So he has to be accounted for as well."
The Jaguars could finally have a legitimate number one threat in Sims-Walker, but it's the ascension to this point that has caught people's attention.
Since entering the league in 2007, the organization believed Sims-Walker could transfer his production from Central Florida to the pro game and used a third round selection to draft him. However, the path to success has been anything but normal for the 24-year-old.
After suffering a knee injury in the 2007 preseason, Sims-Walker was placed on injured reserve and missed his entire rookie year. While appearing in nine games in 2008, including one start, he finished with 16 receptions for 217 yards. Just as Sims-Walker was getting his career off the ground there were more setbacks. He was inactive for six games due to lingering problems with the knee and mourned the deaths of his father and best friend in a span of nine days.
During the offseason, Sims-Walker improved his health from a leg-strengthening regimen and was determined to put his knee issues in the rearview mirror. He even asked receivers coach Todd Monken to make a tape for him to study of the league's best big receivers, including Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and his friend and former college teammate Brandon Marshall of the Broncos.
At 6-2 and 214 pounds, Walker wanted to model other receivers with similar frames and use his added strength. The results have been evident this season, but Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio knew the young receiver had potential since he was brought on board.
"We were hopeful. When Mike came on the scene at his very first minicamp he caught everybody's eye. It was like, 'Wow.' This guy is real natural, real smooth route runner," Del Rio said. "He catches the ball easy and seemed to have an understanding even as a rookie of how to break down coverage and find the soft spots. He just did things with savvy as a younger player"
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew echoed his coach's sentiments. He noticed Sims-Walker's ability to run precise routes, yet the telling sign was his perseverance through the lingering injuries. Walker would find ways to make better of the situation instead and the results came on the field.
"His first OTAs when he first got drafted he was playing great. He was always open, running great routes and he was slowed down by the injuries," Jones-Drew said. "But he was a guy that kept fighting, put his head down, never asked, 'Why me?' He just kept coming back, and those struggles made him hungrier and hungrier. And when he got back on the field that confidence from going through all that adversity was showing up on the field."
The Jaguars organization has been seeking a productive number one receiver since the accomplished Jimmy Smith left the team in 2005. They used three first round picks in a six year-span, yet all turned out to be disappointments.
In 2000, R. Jay Soward was picked followed by Reggie Williams in 2004 and Matt Jones in 2005. Williams was a highly sought talent from Washington State but his career never panned out. Both Jones and Soward had numerous off the field problems slowing their development.
Sims-Walker is trying to stay out of that conversation with his numbers this season. One of five receivers on the roster, he and veteran Torry Holt are the only wideouts with more than one NFL season under their belt.
In fact Sims-Walker is the most experienced in Jacksonville's offensive system. After last season, the team parted ways with Jones and veteran Jerry Porter. They elected not to re-sign Reggie Williams, who was a free agent, and traded Dennis Northcutt.
The club added the seven-time Pro Bowler Torry Holt from the Rams.
The familiarity of the system has paid dividends in Sims-Walker's chemistry with quarterback David Garrard. The Jaguars top receiver has six or more receptions and 80-plus receiving yards in five of the last seven games.
Sims-Walker has shown flashes of big play ability, especially last week against the New York Jets. In the 24-22 victory, he scored on a 26-yard touchdown reception, his seventh reception of 25-plus yards this season.
Walker noted during the offseason he wants to stay healthy for all 16 games, and Del Rio wants the same.
"Mike has been working very hard, been really diligent preparing his body and giving himself a chance to be on the field and stay healthy," he said. "And with that, the player that he is is emerging. He's got a lot of talent and a lot of skill, we just need to keep him on the football field."