When a player is drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, the expectations for the player are set quite high.
Immediate starter, future multiple Pro Bowler, and even eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer are among the predictions assigned to the player.
Willis Adams was the first-round draft selection for the Cleveland Browns in the 1979 NFL draft.
While Adams did not have the career expected of a first-round draft pick, his “chunk plays” (and other positive contributions, including with blocking and on special teams) helped the Browns win AFC Central Division titles in 1980 and 1985.
— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) April 28, 2016
We take a look at the life of Willis Adams – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Before College
Willis Dean Adams was born on August 22, 1956 in Weimar, Texas.
Weimar is located in southeastern Texas.
Adams attended Schulenburg High School in Schulenburg, Texas.
Schulenburg is approximately seven to eight miles southwest of Weimar.
In 1972, Adams was part of the Schulenburg High School team that had a 12-1-2 record and won a state title.
The College Years
Adams attended the University of Houston.
He lettered in football at Houston for two years in 1977 and 1978.
In 1977, Adams was a starting wide receiver for the Cougars.
He caught 15 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
Houston had a 6-5 record in 1977, including a 17-13 win over UCLA (then ranked 11th in the nation by the Associated Press) on September 12, 1977 and a 45-7 defeat of Texas Tech (then ranked 16th in the nation by the Associated Press) on November 19, 1977.
Adams again was a starting wide receiver for the Cougars in 1978.
On December 2, 1978, in a 49-25 Houston victory over Rice, Adams caught five passes for 101 yards and one touchdown.
In 1978, Adams caught 29 passes for 534 yards, resulting in 18.4 average yards per pass reception, and four touchdowns.
Adams ranked in the Southwest Conference for 1978 third in receiving yards, second in average yards per pass reception, and tied for fourth in receiving touchdowns.
The Cougars had a 9-2 record (including triumphs over Florida State, then ranked 10th in the nation by the Associated Press, 27-21 on September 30, 1978, Texas A&M, then ranked sixth in the nation by the Associated Press, 33-0 on October 14, 1978, Arkansas, then ranked ninth in the nation by the Associated Press, 20-9 on October 28, 1978, and Texas, then ranked sixth in the nation by the Associated Press, 10-7 on November 11, 1978) and won the Southwest Conference championship in the 1978 regular season.
Houston then played Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1979.
Adams caught two passes for 35 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown pass, but Houston lost to Notre Dame 35-34.
In the final Associated Press poll for 1978, Houston was ranked 10th in the nation.
In 1978, Adams was named an Honorable Mention All-American by The Sporting News.
He also was named first-team All-Southwest Conference by The Dallas Morning News.
After the 1978 season, Adams played in the East-West Shrine All-Star Game and the Japan All-Star Game.
The Pro Football Years
In the 1979 NFL draft, Adams was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns.
He was the 20th overall pick.
Adams was one of 11 rookies to make Cleveland’s roster in 1979, joining nose tackle Henry Bradley, defensive back Clinton Burrell, defensive tackle Rich Dimler, running back Dino Hall, defensive back Lawrence Johnson, tackle Matt Miller, running back Pat Moriarty, tackle Cody Risien, wide receiver John Smith, and linebacker Curtis Weathers.
In 1979, Adams (at a height of six feet and two inches and at a weight of 194 pounds) played in all 16, but did not start any, regular season games.
On October 7, 1979, Adams had his first NFL regular season pass reception (it was for six yards from Browns quarterback Brian Sipe), in a 51-35 Cleveland loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The catch against the Steelers was Adams’ only pass reception in 1979.
He also had two rushing attempts for four yards.
In 1979, the Browns had a 9-7 record.
Adams, in 1980, again played in all 16, but did not start any, regular season games.
On September 21, 1980, Adams caught a 39-yard pass from Brian Sipe, in a 20-13 Cleveland win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The following week, on September 28, 1980, Adams caught two passes for 46 yards (including a 31-yard reception) from Brian Sipe, as the Browns defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-27.
In a 27-21 Cleveland victory over the Chicago Bears on November 3, 1980, Adams threw a key block on a 56-yard touchdown run by Browns running back Mike Pruitt (which turned out to provide the winning points in the game).
On November 30, 1980, Adams caught two passes for 26 yards from Brian Sipe, in a 17-14 Cleveland triumph over the Houston Oilers.
The following week, on December 7, 1980, in a 17-14 Browns win over the New York Jets, Adams ran 15 yards with a fake punt.
Adams caught one pass for 26 yards from Brian Sipe, in a 27-24 Cleveland defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals on December 21, 1980.
For the 1980 regular season, Adams caught eight passes for 165 yards.
He also had two rushing attempts for seven yards.
The Browns, with an 11-5 record, won the AFC Central Division title in 1980.
It was the first division title for Cleveland in nine years.
In the 1980 NFL playoffs, the Browns met the Oakland Raiders on January 4, 1981.
Adams played in, but did not start, the game, as Cleveland lost to the Raiders 14-12.
Injuries adversely affected Adams’ playing time in 1981 and 1982.
Adams played in seven, and did not start any, regular season games in 1981.
He had only one pass reception in 1981 – a 24-yard catch from Brian Sipe in a 9-3 Browns loss to the Houston Oilers on September 13, 1981.
Cleveland posted a 5-11 record in 1981.
Adams saw even less playing time in 1982.
He only played in one regular season game and had no pass receptions.
The Browns had a 4-5 record in 1982 (because of a players’ strike, the 1982 NFL regular season was only nine games), which was sufficient for Cleveland to make the 1982 NFL playoffs (which used an expanded 16-team format).
In the 1982 NFL playoffs, the Browns (with Adams not playing in the game) lost to the Los Angeles Raiders 27-10 on January 8, 1983.
In 1983, Adams probably had his best NFL season.
He played in all 16, and started five, regular season games.
On September 4, 1983, Adams scored his first touchdown in an NFL regular season game.
He caught a 23-yard touchdown pass (Adams’ only pass reception in the game) from Brian Sipe, in a 27-21 Cleveland loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Adams caught four passes for 73 yards (including a 26-yard reception) from Brian Sipe, in a 24-9 Browns loss to the Seattle Seahawks on October 2, 1983.
In a 28-21 Cleveland loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on October 23, 1983, Adams started his first NFL regular season game.
He caught a 38-yard pass from Brian Sipe.
Adams caught two passes for 22 yards from Brian Sipe and rushed for two yards on one rushing attempt, in a 20-0 Browns shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on November 13, 1983.
On November 27, 1983, Adams started the game and scored his second NFL regular season game touchdown, on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Brian Sipe.
Adams caught a total of three passes for 86 yards (including a 59-yard reception) from Sipe, as Cleveland defeated the Baltimore Colts 41-23.
The following week, on December 4, 1983, Adams again started the game and caught three passes for 56 yards (including a 32-yard reception) from Brian Sipe, in a 27-6 Browns loss to the Denver Broncos.
For the 1983 regular season, Adams caught 20 passes for 374 yards and the above-described two touchdowns.
He also had the above-described one rushing attempt for two yards.
Cleveland compiled a 9-7 record in 1983.
In 1984, Adams played in all 16, but did not start any, regular season games.
On October 14, 1984, Adams caught a 24-yard pass from Browns quarterback Paul McDonald, in a 24-20 Cleveland loss to the New York Jets.
The following week, on October 21, 1984, Adams caught eight passes for 94 yards from Paul McDonald, as the Browns lost to the Cincinnati Bengals 12-9.
In the next game, on October 28, 1984, Adams caught four passes for 62 yards (including a 23-yard reception) from Paul McDonald, in a 16-14 Cleveland loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Adams caught three passes for 30 yards from Paul McDonald, in a 41-7 Browns loss to the San Francisco 49ers on November 11, 1984.
On December 9, 1984, Adams caught two passes for 19 yards from Paul McDonald, as Cleveland lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-20.
For the 1984 regular season, Adams caught 21 passes for 261 yards.
He also won the Ed Block Courage Award on the Browns in 1984, given annually to a member of each NFL team for exemplifying courage, compassion, commitment, and community.
Cleveland had a 5-11 record in 1984.
Adams started the first three regular season games in 1985.
On September 8, 1985, Adams caught four passes for 65 yards (including a 21-yard reception) from Browns quarterback Gary Danielson, in a 27-24 Cleveland loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in overtime.
The following week, on September 16, 1985, Adams caught two passes for 19 yards from Gary Danielson, in a 17-7 Browns victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In the next game, on September 22, 1985, Adams caught four passes for 48 yards (including a 22-yard reception) from Gary Danielson, as Cleveland lost to the Dallas Cowboys 20-7.
These three games to start the 1985 regular season projected that Adams could have perhaps his best NFL season in 1985.
However, Adams suffered a knee injury in the September 22 game against Dallas.
He had knee surgery and did not play again in the 1985 season.
The Browns won the 1985 AFC Central Division title, with an 8-8 record.
In the 1985 NFL playoffs, Cleveland met the Miami Dolphins on January 4, 1986.
The Browns (with Adams not playing in the game) lost to Miami 24-21.
1985 was the last season that Adams played in the NFL.
The Years After Professional Football
After his retirement from the NFL, Adams became a physical education teacher.
Adams appears on various lists of observers as among the worst draft picks in Cleveland Browns history.
However, it may be somewhat harsh to call Adams a draft “bust”.
It is certainly true that Adams’ career statistics – 61 pass receptions for 962 yards (15.8 average yards per pass reception) and two touchdowns and 13 rushing yards on five rushing attempts – better fit a rookie year, rather than a seven-year career, of a successful first-round NFL draft pick.
However, several points should be noted about Adams.
First, Adams was a “chunk play” receiver.
His receptions frequently gained over 20 yards.
His 15.8 average yards per pass reception rank tied for 16th in Browns history among Cleveland receivers with at least 50 pass receptions.
— Jerrell A. Barron Sr. (@JerrellABarron) June 12, 2021
Second, further concerning statistics, Adams’ 61 pass receptions and 962 receiving yards, respectively, rank tied for 82nd and 65th in Browns history.
While not anywhere near the statistics for such Cleveland Pro Football Hall of Fame receivers as Dante Lavelli, Mac Speedie, Paul Warfield, and Ozzie Newsome, Adams’ rankings are respectable when one considers that 386 different players have caught passes in Browns history.
Third, in addition to his pass receiving, Adams contributed to Cleveland as a blocker and on special teams.
Fourth, Adams contributed to the Browns winning two AFC Central Division titles in 1980 and 1985.
Fifth, Adams’ career unfortunately was adversely affected by injury (in particular, in 1985).
Had Adams not suffered his injuries, his statistics undoubtedly would be much higher.
The criticism of Adams particularly derives from him being a first-round draft pick in the 1979 NFL draft.
Some observers focus on Cleveland not drafting future Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, who was drafted by the San Diego Chargers with the 13th pick in the 1979 NFL draft.
The Browns originally had the 13th pick, but traded down to the 20th pick where they selected Adams (in the trade, Cleveland also acquired a second-round draft pick, which the Browns used to draft offensive lineman Sam Claphan).
Other observers highlight Cleveland not drafting future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana.
Montana was not drafted by the San Francisco 49ers until the 82nd pick in the third round of the 1979 NFL draft, so many teams missed out on drafting Montana.
While Winslow and Montana certainly would have been better draft selections than Adams, it is important to remember that Adams did not draft himself.
You can criticize the Browns front office for missing out on Winslow or Montana, but should not criticize Adams for being picked in the first round.
If Adams was a mid-round draft pick, the expectations for him would have been lower and could have been more consistent with Adams’ performance over his seven seasons.
Instead of just calling Willis Adams a “bust”, observers should focus on his “chunk plays” and other positive contributions (including from his blocking and play on special teams) that helped Cleveland win two division titles in the 1980’s.