It’s time to settle the Mike Williams debate once and for all. A quick look across social media over the last month would tell you that Mike Williams is one of the most divisive players this offseason, and I have very much been on the ‘buy’ side of the aisle. Why? He’s physical, talented, and has the opportunity to break out in 2019. I present to you, the case for Mike Williams.
The Chargers drafted the former Clemson WR with the seventh overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. At 6’4” and 218 lbs., with 87th percentile wingspan, Mike Williams is your prototypical big-bodied wideout.
His strongest season in college was his red-shirt junior year. Williams suffered a broken neck during the first game of his 2015 season, but he returned at his best for the 2016 season, in which he recorded the second-most receptions and third-most receiving yards in a single season at Clemson.
During his collegiate career, Williams was dominant at the catch point, and would frequently win 50/50 balls against opposing defenders. However, the Chargers selection of him was viewed by many as an upside based pick, with questions surrounding Williams’ ability to separate against NFL quality cornerbacks. More on that later.
Williams’ rookie season was one to forget. He suffered a herniated disc, missed all of OTAs, training camp, preseason, and the first six games of the NFL season after being sent to the PUP list. Not an ideal start to your NFL career. Upon his return Williams didn’t get going at all, catching just 11 passes for 95 yards in 10 games. He was only on the field for more than 50% of the snaps once (Week 10 against the Bills). Lazy analysis after the season had Williams being labeled as a bust, but in reality, the final 10 weeks of the season had been his pre-season. 2017 was of complete fantasy irrelevance.
Williams had a strong 2018 season, but for all intents and purposes, it was almost his rookie season. Yes, he played some snaps in 2017, but considering all of the important development and offensive installation he missed through injury, just getting to experience OTAs, training camp, and the preseason was a big step forward in his development. It showed, and Williams saw 66 targets (just a 12% market share) and finished with 43/664/10. He was on the field for 62.51% of the offensive snaps, and only saw less than 50% of snaps on three occasions.
Overall, Williams finished as the WR32 with 180.2 points at 11.3 PPG. Critics of Williams point to his consistency as an issue, and their concerns are valid. Per FF Statistics, he only finished inside the top 24 at the position on five occasions last season.
Whilst he was quite boom/bust and touchdown dependant in 2018, I expect this to be mitigated by an increase in snaps, targets, and continued usage in the red zone in 2019.
I don’t consider myself a tape grinder, draft scout, or film evaluator, and DFF has plenty of analysts with a sharper football eye than myself. I just enjoy watching football, and to get a better sense of what Williams did in 2018, I watched all of his 2018 receptions and put together some of his best plays:
Here are some of my takeaways:
Mike Williams is dominant at the catch point and put enough on tape in 2018 to put to bed any concerns about his separation ability.
His touchdown against Marcus Peters is a perfect example of his separation ability. Williams “only” ran a 4.54-sec, 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, but on this play, he easily beats Peters for speed who ran a 4.53-sec, 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine. Pro Day times are typically inflated so this is a great example of Williams’ game speed against a theoretically faster cornerback.
Williams left Steven Nelson (#20) of the Kansas City Chiefs for dead. Again, no concerns about his ability to separate on this play.
His fight and determination. Williams doesn’t give up on plays, and often uses his size to break through initial contact to gain more yardage. A perfect example of this is the play against the Chiefs when the Chargers are backed up close to their goal line. He breaks the initial tackle, allowing him to get the first down and more, giving the offense breathing room. I saw several instances of Rivers going to Williams in similar situations in 2018.
Finally, the most notable takeaway was his red zone usage. The Rivers to Williams combination is virtually unstoppable with the right matchup, and he showed excellent body control to keep both feet in bounds whilst at full stretch.
Should his development continue as expected, Williams will continue to bully opposing defenses all over the field.
So what will 2019 look like for Williams? Put simply, I will be disappointed if Williams is not a top 24 WR at the end of the season if he plays 16 games. I expect him to carve out a clear WR2 role for the Chargers, trailing only Keenan Allen in targets.
Williams’ skeptics point to the return of Hunter Henry, as well as the emergence of Austin Ekeler in the passing game as reasons to fade him for the 2019 season. These concerns are offset for several reasons. Firstly, the departure of Tyrell Williams and Antonio Gates to free agency and retirement respectively vacates 21% of the Chargers targets from 2018. Secondly, I believe that Ekeler is more likely to take touches away from Melvin Gordon, as the Chargers look to preserve their lead back. Gordon has only played 16 games once in his four years in the NFL, dealing with a variety of injuries. With the Chargers looking to sign Gordon to a new deal, and Ekeler averaging a robust 10.3 yards per reception over his first two seasons, favoring him over Gordon at times (8.3 YPR) makes sense for multiple reasons.
The last mitigating factor in Williams’ favor is that Philip Rivers had his fewest pass attempts in a season since 2009 with just 508. Over the past three seasons with Ken Whisenhunt as the offensive coordinator, Rivers averages 558 pass attempts per season.
One of the reasons for Rivers’ low output was the slow pace of play of the Chargers in 2018.
The Chargers have a strong defense, and with the return of a healthy Joey Bosa, and the addition of 2019 draft selections Nasir Adderley and Jerry Tillery it looks to be formidable once again. As such, I do not expect Rivers to approach 600 pass attempts. However, in 2017 the Chargers gave up a miserly 17 points per game (1st in the NFL), so a strong defense doesn’t necessitate fewer offensive plays per game.
Graham Barfield of NFL.com is also on #TeamWilliams in 2019:
Over the last two seasons, Tyrell Williams saw 30% of #Chargers deep targets and 20% of their air yards (both second-most on team). Mike Williams’ 2019 fantasy upside is mouthwatering after quietly leading LAC in red-zone looks last year.
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) June 17, 2019
The deep targets and air yards vacated by Tyrell Williams should be a further boost to Mike Williams, particularly given that he led the team (min. two targets) at 10.1 yards per target. His ability to win contested catches down the field makes him likely to be the primary beneficiary of Rivers’ deep shots, and his excellent red zone ability should ensure he remains a mainstay of the offense in that part of the field.
Williams is drafted as the WR29, per the latest DFF ADP, and 65th overall. This represents an excellent value and a strong buy window before the 2019 season. He is being drafted after N’Keal Harry, Allen Robinson, and Tyler Boyd at WR, as well as Devonta Freeman and Tarik Cohen at RB. I prefer Mike Williams over any of these players when taking into account age, durability, and offensive situation.
So what do you think about Mike Williams? Are you buying him, or is there too much uncertainty for you? Let me know Twitter @FF_DownUnder!
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