The first time that many people became aware of Ray Willis was when they read The Draft, Pete Williams’ excellent 2006 book about the NFL’s scouting process, from agent selection to the Scouting Combine to Pro Days to the draft itself. Willis, a Florida State tackle, made good copy not only for his own athletic prowess, but also for the intelligence of his future wife Kimberly, who spent her time at Florida State completing a doctorate in sports management.
She was the one who taught a sports law class to some of her husband’s teammates, who complained back to Ray about the workload. It was Kimberly who laboriously went through the lists of agents so that Ray could focus on football, and the eventual selection of Bill Johnson was as much hers as his. Johnson, an agent with Pat Dye’s firm, became very close with Ray and Kimberly and brought them through the nerve-wracking process of the draft.
Willis was selected by the Seahawks in the fourth round in the 2005 draft on the strength of his senior efforts, when he teamed with Alex Barron to form the NCAA’s most formidable tackle tandem. In addition, Willis started 36 total games for the Seminoles, and gained a reputation as a solid player who always took great pride in his play.
While Barron was drafted in the first round by the Rams and has become somewhat of a bust through his first two NFL seasons (among the NFL leaders in false starts and blown blocks since he became a pro), Willis has been barely visible at all. The 2005 season marked the best offensive line in Seahawks history, so it was understandable that the rookie would see very limited action. He logged time in six games, mostly on special teams.
But in 2006, with Seattle’s offensive line very much in flux and eight different combinations for the front five utilized through the season, it was a bit curious that the 6’6”, 324-pound Willis only played in one game. The common perception was that Willis, like Barron, must have hit a wall in his development and would struggle to make his mark at the next level. In truth, the stars just had to align before Willis could get his chance.
In the 2007 preseason, his luck finally changed. So did his position, as he was switched inside to right guard to replace the injured Floyd Womack in minicamps, and the veteran Chris Gray while Gray attended to family issues. Willis has practiced despite a broken bone in his left hand, impressive the coaches and drawing attention from Shaun Alexander for his intensity and work ethic.
If the switch to guard sticks, Willis could be the third lineman in three years that has cracked the starting lineup and shown great potential – and all three first replaced Womack after injuries. In 2005, it was Sean Locklear who made the right tackle position much less a concern for the team. 2006 saw Rob Sims, another fourth-round pick, impress enough in his rookie year to have the Seahawks have him projected at starting left guard in 2007. Now, Willis could be the next beneficiary of Womack’s balsa wood body.
When asked to compare Willis and college teammate Barron, NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang said that the gulf between the two players was very wide in many ways. This is a tougher question that it appears because Barron and Willis were, and continue to be, vastly different players,” Rang recently told Seahawks.NET. “I rated Barron as the elite talent among all the offensive line prospects for the 2005 draft. He was, and continues to be, mistake-prone and he lacks the consistent aggression and physicality you like. However, his athleticism and size are Pro Bowl caliber. He is light on his feet and can become an upper echelon left tackle if he sets his mind to it. Because of the presence of Orlando Pace, however, the Rams have Barron at right tackle. His skillset isn't a great fit for right tackle, but rather than adjust and take his game to another level, it appears that he's settled into mediocrity. He has developed into an average NFL starter here over the past three years, but is clearly under-achieving.”
“Willis lacks Barron's balance and quickness, but is a legitimate athlete in his own right and has a history of making the most of his ability,” Rang continued. “I questioned how much upside he had as a pass blocker at right tackle when he came out of college. He was effective in this area, but seemed to be a finished product as his technique was good and his size, strength, and athletic ability, while also good, seemed maxed out. I liked his consistency in the running game more than Barron's, but ultimately viewed him as a considerably lesser overall prospect. I graded him as a 4th to 5th round pick.”
From what he saw of Willis in college, and given the specific physical attributes needed to play the guard position, Rang said that Willis could be a decent, if not optimal, fit inside. "At a shade over 6’5” and with long arms, Willis is a bit big for my taste at guard, but his strength, quickness, and hand usage make him a solid fit inside,” Rang said. “Plus, this is a kid who is willing to do the little extras to get himself on the field. I believe that right tackle is his best position, but the team features a good young right tackle already in Sean Locklear, and Willis is more than capable of stepping up and providing a steady presence inside.
Rang also said that the amount of time it took Willis to be taken seriously as a starting presence on the line shouldn’t be seen as a debit against his overall ability. “Willis is not an elite talent who was ever viewed by the staff as likely to rise above quality NFL starters in Sean Locklear or Chris Gray by practicing against second team defenders during mini-camps,” Rang said. “He, instead, is an emerging prospect who likely will be cutting his teeth this season in his first opportunity at extended playing time. Entering his third season, he should be ready. If he is capable of playing guard, he'll only prove all the more versatile as the feeling among scouts remains that he can play right tackle in this league. Quite simply, it is a more a testament to Seattle's depth along the offensive line than it is a reflection of poor development on Willis' behalf that he hasn't seen the field more to this point.”
Now that things have changed in that regard, and the opportunity is there for Ray Willis, it’s up to him to make the most of it. He’s got family and friends behind him to make the big push – soon it will be time for training camp and the season to tell his story.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET, a staff writer for Football Outsiders, and a regular contributor to FoxSports.com. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.