TAMPA, Fla. — If his new contract is any indication, Riverside High School graduate Mike Williams is poised for his biggest year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the eve of training camp, he signed a six-year, $40.25 million contract extension, putting him among some of the highest paid receivers in the National Football League.
A former fourth-round draft pick out of Syracuse, Williams was scheduled to become a free agent after the 2014 season, but Bucs General Manager Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano deemed him an indispensable part of the offense. They locked him up one year early, before any other team would have the chance to court him in free agency.
“He’s a big part of why we’re building an explosive offense,” said Dominik on the day Williams re-signed with the club in July. It was a deal that had been in the works for a long time, since the end of the regular season, when Williams finished just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. Dominik and Williams’ agent, Hadley Engelhard, worked furiously to get it done.
“It’s always satisfying when you know that you’re giving money to someone that really believes in themselves, believes in the game, and respects the game,” Dominik said. “And Mike does that. And I think that’s what sets him apart from other players and what makes him a special player.”
“It means a lot,” said Williams, looking back on the deal that makes him a Buccaneer through 2018. “It means family, it means seeing hard work pays off. Just to be a Buccaneer … I always say, ‘I want to be a Buccaneer for life.’ ”
But now the focus shifts. There are lofty goals and expectations, even for a team that finished 7-9 last year under a first-year head coach and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2007. The Bucs haven’t won a postseason game since the 2002 Super Bowl. It hasn’t stopped Williams and his teammates from dreaming big.
Williams cites a favorite saying of Schiano: “You have to get in the tournament, which is the playoffs, and see what happens.
“The goal is to win the big prize and that’s what we want,” Williams said. “We don’t want anything less than that.”
He’s not as focused on personal goals. Those take a back seat to what they’re building.
“It’s all just about the team. It doesn’t matter what I do. If we have a lot of personal goals, none is as important as what the team does.”
Much of his success is predicated on the performance of quarterback Josh Freeman, who at times has struggled with consistency. Williams has been the one constant. Of Freeman’s 27 touchdowns last year, a franchise-record, nine of them were caught by Williams.
“I feel like I know what he’s going to say before he says it. I know where he’s going to walk before he walks. It’s kind of like I’m starting to know him so well … like I can cut off my route and know he sees it. It’s starting to be scary.”
Another player Williams has benefited from is veteran Vincent Jackson, whom he calls “the best receiver in the league.” Jackson became a mentor when he arrived last year, showing Williams what it takes to prepare for games.
“For him to go out there and teach younger receivers and still go out there and run great routes and catch balls and still be Vincent Jackson, I think if he was on anybody’s team, he’d help anybody,” Williams said.
Williams didn’t have that type of supporting cast before Jackson’s arrival. After his 11-touchdown rookie campaign in 2010, teams began keying on him, and his production declined. He finished the season with 771 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
In 2012, with Jackson routinely drawing the opponent’s top cornerback and even double-coverage, Williams saw a revival in production, finishing with a career-high 996 receiving yards. Together, the two were one of the most dynamic receiving tandems in the NFL. They will face the Bills in Florida on Dec. 8.
“I think Mike’s a unique player,” Dominik said. “I think he’s got one of the best body controls in the National Football League. I think it’s innate, it’s a rare trait, and I’m happy he’s part of this football team, because I think he complements Vincent Jackson perfectly.”
He also complements the Buccaneers’ offense, which relies on a heavy dose of running from Doug Martin and Freeman taking shots downfield. When Freeman lofts the ball deep down field, it’s usually Williams who comes down with it, making some of the difficult catches.
He’s had lots of practice over the years making those types of plays, starting with his childhood days spent playing catch with his mother, Mary Rosenthal. She is the source of his inspiration She worked hard to put her son in a good place, so that he could stand proudly on a podium one day with an NFL general manager and head coach, and all the faith of a franchise placed in his reliable hands.
“For her to raise two kids by herself and still help me practice football and still let me play little league football, still make me get my grades all together, I get it from her. If she can do that, I think I can do anything.”