Williams starting process to return to NFL

Running back Ricky Williams, exiled for the entire 2006 season because of a fourth violation of the NFL substance abuse policy, has triggered the process that could end his one-year suspension and lead to his reinstatement by the league.

Williams was suspended by the NFL last April 25 and spent last fall playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.

In advance of the one-year anniversary of the sanctions, Williams has already requested that pertinent reports, including those from the clinician who has monitored his case and from Dr. Lawrence Brown, administrator of the NFL drug program, be forwarded to the league for review by commissioner Roger Goodell, sources told ESPN.com on Saturday. That move ostensibly begins the reinstatement process.

The Miami Dolphins, who hold Williams' contractual rights in the NFL, have offered only generic comments about the veteran tailback and it is not known how first-year coach Cam Cameron feels about the possibility of having him return. General manager Randy Mueller earlier this week told the Miami Herald that Williams' status "hasn't been discussed at all," and that there was "nothing new" to report.

Williams' agent, Leigh Steinberg, told the Herald that his client is working on a book and wants to return to the league.

"Ricky is in the best shape of his life," Steinberg said. "He's passed all of his drug tests and he's at a place where he's ready to come back to the Dolphins."

The sources who spoke to ESPN.com on Saturday agreed that Williams is in compliance with the terms of his treatment and the aftercare prescribed by the NFL, and that there are no known obstacles that would preclude his comeback. One source said Williams, who is living in Grass Valley, Calif., with his fiancée and their children, is "pretty upbeat and excited" about resuming his NFL career.

Because the NFL handles such matters on a case-by-case basis, it is not known if Williams will have to meet with Goodell as part of the reinstatement process. The commissioner could technically rely, according to precedent, primarily on the reports from the policy's advisors. But given Williams' history, it would not be surprising if Goodell wanted to personally hear from him on the matter of his potential return to the league.

Williams, who will turn 30 in May, has missed two of the past three seasons. He abruptly retired from the Dolphins just before the start of training camp in 2004 and it subsequently was announced that he was subject to a four-game suspension for a repeat violation of the substance-abuse policy. Williams returned for 2005 and, despite serving the four-game suspension, rushed for 743 yards and six touchdowns as the backup to first-round tailback Ronnie Brown that year.

Last February, the league announced that Williams, who has acknowledged problems with marijuana abuse and who has also been treated for social anxiety disorder, had violated the NFL drug policy for a fourth time. In April, league counsel Jeffrey Pash announced that the veteran tailback was suspended for one year.

Williams then signed a CFL contract believed to be worth about $240,000. He played in 11 game for Toronto, rushing for 526 yards and two touchdowns on 109 attempts. He missed nearly two months of the CFL season, however, because of injuries. First, Williams suffered a broken bone in his left arm, then he sustained a laceration to his left Achilles tendon.

A 1999 first-round choice of the New Orleans Saints, and the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner at Texas, Williams has played in 82 regular-season games in the NFL and has started 73 of them. He has carried 1,757 times for 7,097 yards and 47 touchdowns. A workhorse-type back earlier in his career, Williams strung together four straight 1,000-yard seasons (2000-2003), and he posted a career-best 1,853 yards in 2002 after being traded from the Saints to the Dolphins.

Despite appearing in just a dozen games over the past three seasons, the consensus around the NFL is that Williams can still contribute to a team, if he is motivated and in shape. The Dolphins lack depth at tailback and there is no proven backup to Brown on the roster.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.