TAMPA — Cadillac Williams' injured right knee appears sound, which is good because the Bucs might need both his legs for the stretch run in the NFC South.
Barring an unforeseen change of circumstance, coach Jon Gruden said the Bucs plan to activate Williams from the physically unable to perform list to the 53-man roster Wednesday.
It's an inspired comeback for Williams, who suffered what appeared to be a career-threatening torn patellar tendon in his right knee nearly 14 months ago.
On Monday, Williams wore shoulder pads and participated in contract drills.
"He responded to it. It's exciting," Gruden said. "I've said that for a long time. It's almost like Christmas is here. And Christmas is Wednesday, I hope.
"We'll see how he feels. We'll talk to the trainers and the medical people. If my eyes don't deceive me, I think he has a chance to be a player this year and that would be exciting."
Williams' return could come at a good time for the Bucs. Earnest Graham has a knee injury and could miss Sunday's game against Minnesota. Warrick Dunn has a pinched nerve in his back and did not play Nov. 2 at Kansas City.
The Bucs aren't certain what role Williams will have when he returns, but the 2005 AP offensive rookie of the year plans to make a contribution.
"I do feel like I can come in and help the team," Williams said. "My role, how much I get to play, is up to the coaches. I'm going in with the view that I'm going to contribute. That's how I've prepared myself.
"I feel like I'm in good football shape. I've been practicing the last three weeks, and I feel really good about it. The number of carries is totally out of my hands. I'm just looking to contribute in any way that I can."
Recovering from such a severe injury in a little more than a year is a remarkable accomplishment. But Williams faces an even bigger mental hurdle: playing a regular-season game at full speed.
Receiver Ike Hilliard, who had spinal fusion surgery as a rookie with the New York Giants, was told by at least one specialist he should never step on a football field again. It wasn't until he made a catch on a slant route against Cleveland, his first game back, that he could begin to piece his career together again.
"You've got to feel right to be able to take that first step," Hilliard said. "It's tough because it's a very physical game. It takes a little bit. Hopefully at some point, he'll feel physically ready to put that foot in the ground and run and cut.
"You can do all the practice reps you want, but there's no way you can simulate getting skinny in the hole and having a guy like (safety) Darren Sharper filling the hole at the same time and being able to lift his knees and plant and explode and make a cut at game speed. At some point, once you feel good enough to go, you're still toying with yourself mentally. When you cut it loose, you cut it loose. I caught it, took the shot and said, 'I'm okay, go on to the next play.' "
A final decision on Williams' status will be made Wednesday. To make room on the roster, the Bucs would have to release a player or place one on injured reserve. Veteran Michael Bennett, who has played sparingly despite the injuries to Graham and Dunn, is a candidate.
"That's why they hire these general managers to make these tough decisions," Gruden said. "I'll just say this: It'll be a tough call for us."
But the Bucs appear determined to reward Williams for his hard work since suffering the injury last season in Week 4 at Carolina.
"This guy is a hell of a back. This guy is a very good back," Gruden said. "We have film to prove that. We want him to be a big part of our organization. So if he's healthy, he's going to play here.
"Earnest has done a heck of a job. We do have some injuries. Warrick has been out for the last two games. If we could ever get Warrick Dunn and Earnest Graham and Carnell Williams, that would be exciting for us."