The NFL preseason is defined by three things.
The first is the professional debut of high draft picks—the first chance we get to see the likes of Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray in game action.
The second is overreaction to those debuts by fans and pundits alike. Both Murray and New York Giants signal-caller Daniel Jones are already being fitted for gold jackets and busts in Canton. The Washington Redskins' Dwayne Haskins, on the other hand, is already being declared a bust.
The third thing that defines the preseason is the emergence of unheralded players, be they late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents—youngsters who make the most of the opportunity to showcase talent that slipped between the cracks during the predraft process.
Every year, the league features a surprise sensation who goes from zero to hero. Last year, Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay went from undrafted player to training camp sensation to the first offensive UDFA in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in his first season.
This year, Preston Williams of the Miami Dolphins could well be the biggest preseason UDFA head-turner. He's a lanky, athletic pass-catcher who has looked the part of the best receiver on a team that desperately needs someone to step up and be "the guy" at the position.
Williams certainly looked like "the guy" in the exhibition opener against the Atlanta Falcons. It wasn't just the matter of a four-catch, 97-yard effort that led the Dolphins in both categories. Or that Williams' big game came on the heels of another huge performance catching passes from Josh Rosen in last week's intrasquad scrimmage. As Brian Baldinger of NFL.com pointed out, it was that Williams made every difficult catch look easy.
It's also not like Thursday's big showing was the first time he had impressed since arriving in South Florida. As Tom D'Angelo reported for the Palm Beach Post, Williams has been arguably the team's most talked-about wideout in camp, drawing praise from new Dolphins head coach Brian Flores.
"He's big, he's fast, he's got good hands, he's tough, and he's really worked every day to get better," Flores said. "We tell him to block in the run game, he blocks in the run game, play more downhill on your end cuts, he does that. He works hard after practice, he works hard in meetings."
All four of Williams' catches against the Falcons came on throws from Rosen, who talked up the 6'5", 218-pound Williams' ability to attack the football, per D'Angelo.
"I think you've got to know what certain guys are good at and Preston can go get the ball," Rosen said. "So, you've got some guys that are smaller, quick and fast, some guys are physical ... and Preston will go get the ball. So you've got to give him those opportunities."
Teammate Kenny Stills, who is Miami's nominal No. 1 receiver, said he believes Williams has the potential to be a star at the professional level.
"He's a first-round talent," Stills said. "He's going to be somebody to deal with in this league for a long time and so we're looking forward to everything that he can do."
That's the thing: Were it strictly a matter of talent, Williams never would have been an undrafted free agent to begin with. As a junior at Colorado State last year, Williams was one of the leading wide receivers in college football, posting a gaudy 96 receptions for 1,345 yards and 14 touchdowns. The receiving yards ranked fourth in FBS, and the 14 scores tied for third.
But while sitting out the 2017 season after transferring to Colorado State from Tennessee, Williams was arrested after allegedly shoving his girlfriend multiple times and charged with misdemeanor harassment and assault with a domestic violence enhancement. He was arrested again about a month later on a charge of violating a protection order. He pleaded guilty to the harassment charge in January 2018 and received a deferred sentence, but those run-ins with the law got him disinvited to the scouting combine and pulled off many draft boards. A poor showing at Colorado State's pro day, which included a 4.55-second 40-yard dash, didn't help matters either.
At that pro day, Williams told Kelly Lyell of the Fort Collins Coloradoan that his past missteps would not be repeated.
"I'm not that type of person," Williams said. "Everything is in the past that happened. It won't happen again. ... Any team that will take a chance on me, I'll be glad. I'm going to give them my best effort."
The Dolphins did take that chance. And so far at least, Williams is holding up his end of the deal.
In some respects, going undrafted may have worked in his favor. Rather than being drafted late by a team that's relatively set at the position, Williams landed on a Dolphins team with one of the weakest wide receiver depth charts in the league.
DeVante Parker signed a two-year, $10 million contract extension in the offseason, but the former first-round pick has been a massive disappointment through four years in the pros. Stills is a capable player, but heading into his seventh NFL season, he's yet to record a 1,000-yard campaign. Albert Wilson showed flashes in 2018 but is still rehabbing a season-ending hip injury.
Add in a pair of new quarterbacks in Rosen and veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and a new coach in Flores, and the Dolphins receiver depth chart is written more in pencil than pen.
Granted, while Williams has made major strides toward making the 53-man roster, a significant role on the Dolphins offense in 2019 is far from guaranteed at this point. He has no margin for error in practice and the remaining exhibition games.
However, to this point, Williams has taken full advantage of the opportunity the Dolphins have offered him. And if he can continue to show soft hands and the ability to outrun, outmuscle and outjump defensive backs...
Then on a Dolphins team in need of a No. 1 receiver that will be playing catch-up for approximately 64 minutes of every game this year, another surprise UDFA star could be in the offing.