The expectations were insane. It wasn't Mario Williams' fault that the Houston Texans liked him so much they bypassed running back Reggie Bush and quarterback Vince Young to make the defensive end the draft's No. 1 overall pick in 2006.
There was no way he could live up to that. But after enduring a trying rookie season, Williams appears to be on course to becoming an elite NFL defensive end.
Just as the Texans thought.
"They took a lot of heat, I guess, for not taking somebody else, but at the end of the day they look pretty good if you ask me for taking the big guy because he's a heck of a football player," Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden said.
Williams' surge in production backs that up. Williams has 8 ½ sacks this season. His 2 ½ sacks last week in Tennessee made him the franchise's single-season sack king.
Who did he sack? Young.
The Texans believed Williams could be the fulcrum of a young defense that could grow into one of the NFL's best. The unit features six starters drafted in the past three years, including 2006 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year linebacker DeMeco Ryans.
"I think the sky is the limit for this kid," Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said. "I think he has a chance to be a phenomenal player, but he's a very good player right now who's having an excellent year."
Williams' draft-eve agreement to a contract with the Texans drew a stunned reaction from most of the NFL. Last season he registered 4 ½ sacks in 16 games, but he played eight of those games with plantar fasciitis, a foot ailment that affects the heel.
Kubiak said Williams rarely complained. Combine that with the endless questions about and comparisons to Bush and Young and Williams learned a lot about the NFL last season.
"My head was spinning last year pretty much with everything that was going on," Williams said. "I was moving around more last year and trying to learn more positions. This year I'm just more comfortable."
Most coaches try to insulate their young players from such scrutiny, which is difficult in the NFL. But Kubiak things that the scrutiny actually paid off this season.
All the questions and criticism that Williams endured has made him stronger.
"I think that's the key to him being so successful this year," Kubiak said. "I think he learned how to deal with that stuff and learned that the most important thing is how he plays ball and that he enjoys playing the game."
Defensive end Gaines Adams, the Bucs' first-round pick, understands that all too well. He's hasn't suffered Williams' level of scrutiny this season, but he had to answer question at midseason about his perceived lack of development.
Adams, like Williams, learned that any rookie defensive end has a lot to learn.
"I felt kind of down and discouraged," Adams said. "Being drafted where I was drafted I wanted to come in and start off strong and do some good things to help this team. But you have to realize this is the NFL, and at my position (right end) it's rare that guys come in and be successful (right away)."
The trick is patience. Williams has learned that.
"It's totally different," Williams said. "It's a totally different feeling now once you've had a year under your belt."
Three things to watch on Sunday
LB DeMeco Ryans
Remember Shelton Quarles? Now imagine him about 11 years younger. That's Ryans.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.