May 8, 2010 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Second-year Lions WR Derrick Williams needs breakout season

Derrick Williams was a do-it-all player for Penn State, but as a Lions receiver last season he had just six catches for 52 yards. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)

Allen Park -- Amid all the back-slapping about the Lions' recent draft classes -- and particularly Martin Mayhew's first in 2009 -- there's still one nagging question: Is Derrick Williams a bust?

After all, he finished his rookie season with only six catches for 52 yards. And he failed to provide a spark on special teams, fumbling away the punt-return duties in preseason and averaging 22.2 yards on kickoffs as the team's No. 2 option there.

It's way too soon to chalk Williams up as a lost cause, though. And as disappointed as Mayhew and the coaching staff was last year with Williams' play, from the muffed punts to the missed assignments, they're taking the same approach.

We've asked Mayhew about it more than once this offseason, and his response remains the same -- as it should for a unique talent he wagered a third-round pick on a year ago.

"I haven't given up on a guy or put a guy on the back burner or anything," Mayhew said, later adding, "But there are guys that I expect to see dramatic improvement from this year. Derrick Williams is one, obviously."

Point of no return

Linebacker Zack Follett's another. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus, too. And so on. When you're 2-14, dramatic improvement is needed from individuals across the board, quite frankly.

But when asked if he thinks Williams can get better in the return game -- an area where he was expected to make his mark as a rookie -- Mayhew didn't hesitate, saying, "He has to."

The good news is Williams seems to understands that. He said Thursday he's using his first full NFL offseason to get some extra work catching kicks and punts from the Lions' veteran specialists, Jason Hanson and Nick Harris.

And, obviously, he's catching his fair share of passes from the quarterbacks, too, trying to nail down a roster spot in an increasingly crowded position group. The Lions got little production out of their secondary receiving options last season, and they've made it clear with their recent transactions that can't happen again.

The team signed Nate Burleson to a rich contract on the first day of free agency, added another pass-catching tight end in Tony Scheffler via trade and last week claimed another big receiving target, Marko Mitchell, off waivers from the Redskins.

The Lions' first three draft choices from last year look like prime talents: Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew and Louis Delmas. The next two after Williams were immediate starters, too: DeAndre Levy and Sammie Hill.

But here's what fans need to consider before panning the Williams pick. He wasn't just a rookie receiver, though most struggle with the transition to the pro game. Williams was a rookie receiver whose college career was spent doing everything but rolling up Joe Paterno's pant legs at Penn State.

Staying patient

Once the top-rated high school prospect in the country, Williams became a do-it-all standout for the Nittany Lions, with an emphasis on the "all" part. And I asked Williams this week if he felt that stunted his growth a bit.

"I believe so," he said. "In college, playing quarterback, playing running back, playing everything -- it definitely hurt my development as a receiver."

"But I still think I'm a great receiver," added Williams, who may have to beat out veteran Dennis Northcutt to stick around. "And I still think I can get things done."

That's what he's busy trying to convince the coaches of this offseason, with help from Bryant Johnson, a fellow Penn State alum and mentor, and Burleson, another vet he's quickly developing a rapport with in Allen Park.

I don't know that Williams will ever become another Burleson. But I'm convinced there's still plenty of upside here. Too much to give up on, as long as Williams is willing to give it a go, which it sounds like he's doing right now.

"The position I was in last year where I had to learn every position in the receiving corps, it was kind of tough for me, because everything seemed to be running together," Williams said. "But I heard the terminology last year, I had a year to study it, I had the offseason to study it. So now right when I hear it, I can go out there and go full speed."

Full speed ahead? Well, Williams already finds himself playing a little game of catch-up with his own NFL career projections, just like he did in college. But if he can fulfill that potential, the Lions will be glad they held on to him.

john.niyo@detnews.com">john.niyo@detnews.com (313) 982-3810 twitter.com/JohnNiyo

See Also
More John Niyo