One of the priorities for the Chargers when they start looking at their free agents is Mike Williams. He is coming off his fifth-year option and looking to earn a payday he earned in 2021.
This season, Williams was seen as one of the better down-the-field receivers. He had peaked over the past two seasons with incredible catches in Mexico City, New Orleans and Denver. They all happened in the fourth quarter and gave the Chargers a chance to win the game.
However, that was all he was.
When Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi were hired, they thought Williams could play a bigger role in the offense. After years of working in New Orleans, Lombardi thought Williams could play a role akin to pro bowl receiver Michael Thomas.
Staley met each player individually when they all returned to the building, and he explained their vision to Williams.
“The first time I spoke to Coach Staley, he said that in the past, when they played against me, they wanted to take the deep ball away because they noticed I wasn’t catching many short passes,” Williams explained. “He said he wanted to flip the script and give me a lot of in-breaks, a lot of ramps, a lot of smoke to get the ball in my hands. I’m a big body, physical receiver, so I feel like I’m with the can play the ball in my hands and play like that.”
It was clear that the Chargers wanted to involve Williams early in the first week. He had two catches for 20 yards on the opening drive. He also had a crucial catch towards the end of the game on third-and-seven that kept the drive alive to kill the clock and emerge victorious.
When they went to Kansas City in week three, the offense showed more of what Williams could do. He caught obliques, outs and deep passes. He had seven catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the fourth quarter.
“I think he showed that he’s a hard cover in a lot of places,” Staley said. “What I also think he showed was the durability which is also important. I feel like being available for [QB] Justin [Herbert] and being able to grow with Justin – I think that really showed the chemistry this season. That is also an important factor to be a pro player.”
It was clear early on and throughout the season that when Williams had a big game, the attack flowed. Williams had less than 50 receiving yards in five of their seven losses.
It wasn’t that long ago that Williams was considered a bust. He finished seventh overall in the 2017 draft, but suffered a back injury that limited him all season. In 2018, he had 664 receiving yards, but scored 11 touchdowns.
He took a big step in 2019 when he posted his first season in the 1000 yard, but he finished in the end zone only twice. Next season, his numbers dropped to 756 yards and scored five touchdowns.
“I feel like I’ve gotten better and better every year,” Williams explained. “Every year I try to find something to get better at my game to make my game better. I feel year in, year out, I did. This off season I will try to get better so that we are not in this position, just try to help my team win ball games; that is the most important. Get better, better my game, and come out and be a better player next year.”
The first four seasons he missed a few games due to injuries, partly because of the style in which he played. Williams was like a WWE superstar who had to do all these dangerous acrobatics to get the ball across the field.
What a coincidence that Lombardi and Staley changed his style, and he has made it almost all season without being hindered. He missed one game due to COVID.
One of the things Williams showed this season is that he has the confidence of quarterback Justin Herbert. It developed slowly, as in 2020 Herbert looked more to Keenan Allen in crucial situations.
This season, it looks like the young quarterback got more comfortable in his pocket, choosing at crucial moments when to pitch to which receiver.
“Mike is a special player,” Herbert explained. “I knew as soon as I got here how gifted he was and what he can do with the 50/50 balls. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the routes he drives and the divorce.”
This season, the Herbert/Williams connection has been the strongest duo in the NFL. The former Clemson receiver has scored six tying/go-ahead touchdowns this season, the most since receiver Sterling Sharpe in 1989.
“Mike has been phenomenal all season,” said Allen. “I said he’s our big man, our man with a lot of money. He makes the plays when it’s time to be made.”
Williams was the player Herbert looked at in the fourth quarter. The receiver had 432 yards and seven touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“He did it all season for the money,” Allen explained. “This was definitely for the money for him. He stayed healthy. He was able to play and made great plays all the time. He did more than he ever did, so hats off to Mike.”
The only negative thing about Williams’ game this season is that he needs to work on his practical slope routes. He had six drops this season, and some of them came on skewed routes. He missed a few in Kansas City, then against the Vikings, he had a big drop late in the game and there were some mistakes in Thursday night’s game against the Chiefs.
In 2021 he took the next step in his growth.
Williams had a career-high in catches with 76, career-high in yards with 1,146 and nine touchdowns.
“I wanted to have a career year — that was the most important thing for me, to have a career year,” Williams explained. “Obviously, as a team goal, I wanted to make the playoffs and have a chance to play in the Super Bowl, but we couldn’t do that. Individually, it went pretty well.”
Offensive continuity is key for the Chargers third-year quarterback. He has not had the same head coach, offensive coordinator and key weapons in his colleague or professional. This could be the first.
Plus, that latest appearance against the Raiders showed everything the front office, staff, players and fans need to know about Williams.
He hurt his shoulder at one point, but came with three grabs on the first touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. He had a 14-yard catch on the fourth down, including a 12-yard touchdown with no time left on the clock on the tying touchdown drive. He had a huge catch of 47 meters and went down fourth in overtime.
“I think the other night was kind of an expression of his season,” Staley said. “I think he has proved the competition and you guys that he is a complete receiver.”
Williams is slated to hit free agency this off-season.
“I’m thankful we drafted him, and I’m thankful he’s here,” said Chargers GM Tom Telesco. “We will figure out the future, but he was a big part of this football team this year, and he has been in the past.”
Telesco and the Chargers buyers have to make a big decision about Williams. Telesco’s motto is to draft, develop and pay for them. The Chargers have the cap space to do it, but they can also go the franchise tag route.
Williams has taken the right steps in his development and the relationship between Herbert and he has grown tremendously.
“Yes, I’d like to,” Williams explained. “I don’t like changes. I feel like I’ve built some lifelong friendships here with the guys in this organization, on and off the field. I like the organization, I like the people I come to work with every day. Hopefully it will work out on both sides.”