NFL Draft Stories: The New Orleans Saints Go All In for Ricky Williams
Sorting prospects and creating a big board for the NFL Draft is one of the key parts of any NFL team's war room. The New Orleans Saints had Ricky Williams atop their board and were prepared to do whatever they could to move up and grab their guy in the 1999 NFL Draft.
And that's exactly what they did.
Williams won the Heisman Trophy while rushing for over 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns for the University of Texas Longhorns football team. Prior to his Heisman Trophy-winning season, Williams had rushed for over 1,000 yards in every season for the Longhorns and came to be known as the "Texas Tornado."
The 1999 NFL Draft started in typical fashion for many NFL Drafts with teams looking to select their franchise quarterbacks as the first three picks were all signal-callers.
First, it was the SEC Player of the Year Tim Couch going to the Cleveland Browns. Ouch.
Next was Donovan McNabb to the Philadelphia Eagles. That one worked out pretty well.
With the third pick, the Cincinnatti Bengals picked Akili Smith. Yikes.
The Indianapolis Colts were next and picked a running back, but it wasn't the Heisman Trophy winner from the Texas Longhorns. Instead, it was Edgerrin James out of the University of Miami.
With Washington sitting at the number five slot, the Saints made the move up to grab their guy. But the cost was high.
So high that Norv Turner, the Washington Redskins head coach at the time, couldn't believe it was real.
“When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’" (via NBC Sports)
The New Orleans Saints traded away their entire draft capital to move up from No. 12 to No. 5 in the NFL Draft. Yes, you read that right. The Saints traded an entire draft to select one player.
For those keeping score with the draft-value trade chart, that's 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points. Redskins general manager Charley Casserly knew he was on the verge of something big when discussing the trade with Saints general manager Billy Kuharich.
“A generational trade,” Casserly called it. (via NBC Sports)
The pressure of being a first-round pick is a lot for an NFL rookie to carry. That pressure was only magnified considering the franchise mortgaged their entire draft class in exchange for Williams.
The Saints planned a press conference to introduce their new franchise player and it became evident this pairing wasn't going to be easy. Peter King of NBC Sports noted that Williams was an "intensely shy" person and Williams was unaware of what he was getting himself into.
The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said... Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’" (via NBC Sports)
King also noted another peculiar situation in which Williams' shyness was clearly evident.
"I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face." (via NBC Sports)
It was a precarious situation for Williams and the Saints. The franchise had moved an entire draft's worth of picks to take him, thinking he'd be a generational talent. Williams, on the other hand, seemed to want nothing to do with the national spotlight, something that is next to impossible for a skill player selected early in the NFL Draft.
Despite doing his best to avoid the national spotlight, Williams appeared on the August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine with Saints head coach Mike Ditka. The cover photo has become synonymous with the trade and is among one of the first images fans think of when recalling one of the worst trades in NFL history.
It was 20 years ago today. The Saints traded their entire draft for Ricky Williams. It was Williams idea to pose in this wedding dress for ESPN the Magazine! pic.twitter.com/wTBhMJ19XF— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) April 17, 2019
Williams would later say he thought the magazine cover was "nothing crazy compared to Ditka trading eight picks for me."
The Saints went 3-13 the following season and Ditka was fired. Williams lasted a few more seasons in New Orleans before getting traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002.
Almost as interesting as the trade that actually did happen is the ramifications of the one that didn't come to fruition. The Bengals were picking third and the Saints were talking with them to move up. The Saints offered eight draft picks to move up but the Bengals insisted on staying to pick their guy, the aforementioned Akili Smith.
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