Armando Salguero

The Dolphins rated him a high draft pick but didn’t select him. It’s working out well, anyway | Opinion

The most impressive wide receiver on the Miami Dolphins practice field Monday? The guy who caught a handful of passes, including a 40-yard touchdown.

The most impressive rookie of the training camp so far? The player who has consistently shown up workout after workout and factored in what has happened on the field, doing so in such obvious fashion that everyone is noticing.

And we’re talking about the same person.

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Preston Williams.

The rookie wide receiver out of Colorado State has been a revelation since he joined the team as an undrafted free agent in the offseason. He has played unlike any undrafted free agent in recent memory and that draft status — or lack of it — seems incongruent with what Williams has shown on the field.

That’s because it is incongruent. Because the Dolphins believe Williams would have been a second-day draft pick if NFL teams had judged him on his football talent alone last April. That means the Dolphins believe Williams, 6-5 and 218 pounds with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, would have been a second- or third-round selection.

That’s how Williams has looked on the field while working primarily with Miami’s second-team offense this camp: Like a high draft pick learning the professional game but often flashing great ability.

“That guy can be special,” Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard said of Williams after Saturday’s scrimmage. “He’s still learning. He’s just a rookie. [There] is so much room for improvement with him, but he’s going to be a No. 1 receiver one day.”

Howard is Miami’s best cornerback and perhaps its best player regardless of position. He went to the Pro Bowl last year and signed a big contract extension recently. So this is a case of ball recognizing ball.

“I’ve been playing against receivers all of my life,” Howard said, “so I know what it takes.”

Dolphins coaches and personnel people privately believe they have something valuable in Williams. They won’t say it publicly because the team hasn’t even played one preseason game yet. Williams hasn’t faced a defensive back from another team yet.

But the Dolphins believe the signs are all there for Williams to be a factor in 2019 and beyond.

And this is the part where the skeptic will say the kid hasn’t even made the team yet. That’s true. He has not made the team yet. But he’s on course to make the team. If he follows his current trajectory he’s guaranteed of making the 53-man roster.

Everyone atop the organization knows it.

So now it’s just a matter of Williams not screwing up.

Williams, by the way, screwed up in 2017. He was sitting out that season because he had transferred to Colorado State from Tennessee and needed to abide by NCAA transfer rules.

During the fall of that year he was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge for a domestic altercation with a woman described in police reports as his girlfriend. Police said Williams shoved the woman while trying to prevent her from moving out of the off-campus apartment the two shared.

According to the Coloradoan newspaper, Williams pleaded guilty to an assault charge, a Class 3 misdemeanor, on Jan. 23, 2018. He got a deferred sentence March 5 from Larimer County Court Judge Mary Joan Berenato and joined the university’s “conflict-resolution” program while serving a team suspension.

There was apparently good reason for the suspension as Williams was known to be troubled among his teammates. But that seemingly changed from September of 2017 to July of 2018.

“I’m very impressed,” wideout Bisi Johnson told the Loveland Reporter-Herald in July 2018. “I mean, he turned his whole life around. It was a little sketchy there at first, but he’s definitely figured it out ...”

The NFL didn’t buy it. It prohibited Williams from working out at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine last February. The NFL typically keeps players with a history of violence from participating. Williams was eventually allowed to interview with teams, but none of them bought into the player, either.

He went undrafted.

The Dolphins signed Williams as an undrafted free agent on May 9.

(That’s looking like quite an undrafted class right now, by the way, because guard Shaq Calhoun and long snapper Wesley Farnsworth were signed the same day. Calhoun has spent a week working with the starters at right guard, and Farnsworth is giving longtime veteran John Denney a serious challenge for his roster spot so far.)

Williams, for his part, told reporters at his pro day the domestic dispute that led to his arrest, subsequent plea, and suspension was out of character.

“I’m not that type of person,” Williams said. “Everything is in the past that happened. It won’t happen again.”

If that turns out to be true — and there’s no way of knowing how this is going to turn out — finding Williams could be significant on many fronts for the Miami personnel department.

The Dolphins changed gears on how they view players with troubled pasts last offseason. With general manager Chris Grier wielding final say over all football decisions, the Dolphins obviously took a gamble on Williams. They also did much work on Mississippi State defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, who was captured on video hitting a woman during a scuffle between the woman and a female family member.

Such players were typically red-flagged and removed from the Dolphins draft board in the past. Running back Joe Mixon was one such example of that. Simmons was very much on Miami’s board prior to the last draft and obviously Williams is on the team.

So this is different and it comes with the possibility of great reward or great embarrassment. But so far the Dolphins are seeing only the rewards with Williams.

And Grier and the Miami personnel department need to be recognized for the good work (again, so far, because we’re on Chapter 3 of a 25-chapter book). The Dolphins need this kind of work because rebuilding strictly via draft picks is a long process. Perhaps too long for anyone’s purposes.

So the Dolphins need to hit an unexpected home run with a late-round pick or two. Miami needs to unearth a starter off the waiver wire. Miami needs to hit one out of the park with an undrafted free agent.

I’m not saying Williams is that home run. In fact, he’s not saying it, either. He was asked after the scrimmage if he’s pleased with himself.

“Not yet,” he replied. “I’m still working. I’m trying to get better and master my craft.”

He’s definitely doing that in impressive fashion so far.

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