Quite a Complement

To say wide receiver Roy Williams is an enigma is an understatement.

Look at his height and speed, and some assume he could be a poor man's Randy Moss. But he's not quite as tall, and not quite as fast. Williams has the ability to make plays — a lot of plays — downfield, but Moss, when on his game, still terrifies defensive coordinators and defensive backs.

Look at Williams' physique, and images of Larry Fitzgerald — sans dreadlocks — come to mind. But Fitzgerald is a little thicker and unmatched going up for jumpballs, while Williams is a step faster.

Those comparisons people make every year around draft time ("this guy is the next so-and-so") often are insulting to both players, and usually are a result of laziness on the part of the person making the comparison. But with that said, the player to whom Williams is best compared — or "the first version of Williams" — has been identified: Alvin Harper.

They're virtually the same size: at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Williams has five pounds on Harper during his playing days. Both are strong, fast and über-athletic guys capable of jumping over defenders to make spectacular touchdown grabs … and capable of driving their coaches crazy with lapses of concentration that lead to dropped passes.

Harper was something of a star for the Cowboys during his career. The team's "other" receiver from 1991-94, he thrived in the single coverage he faced while opposing teams built their pass defense around trying to contain Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek. When teams put their top cornerback on Irvin and slid a safety into the seams to help shadow Novacek, Harper often found himself in one-on-one coverage with a cornerback who almost always lacked the size — and often the speed and jumping ability — to stay with him. More often than not, Harper dominated such matchups. Get him on the outside of the hash marks on deep routes, where he could use his size and speed, and Harper was a dangerous weapon.

Williams, it seems, is the same player. He has the same physical tools that make teams coaches and GMs drool. Not coincidentally, each has inspired a team to overpay for him. After his time in Dallas, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lured Harper away with a four-year, $10.6 million deal because their team braintrust saw him as a No. 1 receiver. But he only played two years for the Bucs, before playing 12 fruitless games with the Washington Redskins and then signing with the Cowboys for a two-game swan song in which he didn't catch a pass.

Similarly, Williams was a record-setting college receiver when the Detroit Lions drafted him out of the University of Texas in 2004, with the idea of pairing him with 2003 first-rounder Charles Rodgers to form a potent pair of big, fast downfield targets. He showed flashes in Detroit, earning a spot as an alternate in the 2007 Pro Bowl, but when the Cowboys offered three draft choices in October 2008 —first-, third- and sixth-round picks in the 2009 draft — for Williams (and a late pick), the Lions sent him back to his home state.

Williams now is very similar to what Harper was. When he gets outside the hash marks, he can use his size and strength to punish smaller cornerbacks. Get the Dallas offense in the red zone, and he presents matchup headaches for defenses.

This is not to badmouth either receiver; every team can use a big, strong, second receiver like Harper or Williams, a guy who can dominate most No. 2 cornerbacks.

Harper shined as a complement to Irvin. When he was tagged as a lead receiver in Tampa Bay, he faltered. Likewise, it is no coincidence that the majority of Williams' better games have coming after the emergence of Miles Austin as the Cowboys' best receiver.

When asked to be the top target in the Dallas passing game, Williams was sometimes stellar, and sometimes maddeningly inconsistent. But if he embraces his role as a complement to the top targets — Austin and tight end Jason Witten — he just might end up having the game-changing impact in the playoffs that Harper had in the early 1990s.

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