The expectations of a number one draft pick can be overwhelming. Being handed a multi-million dollar contract without playing an NFL down accompanied by the hope of being a franchise cornerstone can make or break a player. During his rookie season, many thought Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams was destined to break until he progressively became one of the league's best.
In 2006, shockwaves were sent around the league prior to draft day as Houston announced they would select Williams, a standout end from N.C. State, with the first overall pick. For weeks, it was all but assured that either USC running back and Heisman trophy winner Reggie Bush or Texas quarterback Vince Young would be the selection.
The criticism followed, but all Williams has done is start every game for three seasons, even showing toughness while battling through a severe foot injury the last eight games of his rookie campaign, and emerging as a solid playmaker for a young defensive squad amassing 33.5 career sacks—making the Texans look all the smarter for drafting him.
The Bills will get a closer view of Williams' talents as they host Houston Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Watching from the home sideline will be John McCargo, a former roommate and teammate of Williams at N.C. State, and the Bills second first round selection (26th overall) in 2006.
McCargo said the pressure of being selected first overall, and the doubters who followed, were never a detriment to Williams. In fact, the situation was something he expected long before the draft process.
"I see the same person because he wanted that anyway," McCargo said. "He deserved to be picked where he did then, he works hard, and he tries to do whatever he can do to be number one. He's always had a great work ethic and improved every year."
Gary Kubiak, in his fourth season as Houston's head coach, said the lack of production from Williams his first season was a result of playing through injury and joining a weak roster. Still adjusting to the professional level, he faced the burdens of a poor on-field product and the label of being a top pick.
Battling through these tough elements made Williams a stronger player and professional.
"I think the reason he's become such a fine player is because he withstood that storm so to speak and all that pressure, and all that scrutiny. And I think now he's just really a grown-up pro, loves to play the game, prepares very well. He came out of that a better player and a better person and sometimes that can eat guys up. But he handled it very well."
McCargo said Williams went through the same transition as any other player jumping from college to the professional level, especially the first season when many rookies experience struggles. The steady improvement to the elite level Williams plays at now was a combination of work ethic and relying on the coaching staff to get him there. After finishing with 59 tackles and a franchise record 14 sacks in 2008, he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl with 12 sacks last season—a destination he hopes to reach again in 2010 at Miami to prove any remaining naysayers wrong.
"Mario works extremely hard and he's a smart player so he does what he has to do to get better. With those coaches down there, he used every tool to get better," McCargo said. "He wants to be the best and he hears all that stuff that people say about him. He's very motivated so he'll do whatever he can to stay on top of his game, making plays. He wants to make the Pro Bowl again this year."
Unlike the development of Williams in three pro seasons, McCargo has struggled to earn a starting spot and provide much production for the Bills. Part of that is due to injuries when he was placed on injured reserve in both the 2006 and 2008 seasons. After dedicating himself fully to the offseason conditioning program, however, McCargo is working towards resurrecting his career and becoming the disruptive, run-stopping forced the Bills saw in him when they drafted him.
McCargo said watching Williams and how important his play is to Houston's success is always a motivator to step his game up another level.
"He definitely does inspire me, to see a guy that you roomed with, played with in college and he's doing well," he said. "When we see people from N.C. State playing well, it motivates me to play better too."