Is It Time to Give Up On Mike Williams?
Image Credit: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Mike Williams.

A lot of digital ink has been spilled musing about what the deal is with Mike Williams. Just days after he Williams was drafted we were already wondering about the future of Keenan Allen. One year later and after an injury-plagued rookie season, Shawn Siegele kept buying him. Fast-forward to last August and we were giving Williams the highest of potential floors. Just this past December we went the distance to proclaim Williams as the Chargers alpha receiver!

Yet Mike Williams has already three seasons under his belt and the best he’s ever finished is as the 79th-best player overall… and WR32 in 2018. Is it time to close the book on Williams once for all, or should we give him one more–perhaps last–chance?

Starting at the Beginning

I know this is going to sound so old, but it will make sense when looking at the whole picture. Williams played college football at Clemson and spent four seasons with the Tigers. He wasn’t bad by any means, evolving each year and maintaining a high performance level over his pre-NFL career.

No wonder the Chargers selected him seventh overall in the 2017 NFL draft, the second receiver off the board that year only behind Corey Davis. I wanted to include this short college resume in order to present some similar players to Williams from his college days. Here are his 10 best comps.

Not going to lie: there are some horrific names here. But there are also impossibly great and promising ones such as Michael Thomas, James Washington, and Deebo Samuel. I want to believe this means one and only one thing: I should not give up on Mike Williams.

From Rookie To Third-Year Pro

Williams’ first three years in the NFL have been mixed:

After missing the first six games of the 2017 season due to injury, he completed the rest of the year without trouble, but his performances were way below the expectations he entered the league with given his draft position and projections as a prospect. His 2018 was much closer to what everybody thought of Williams before his rookie season dud, and the flashes were so bright at times with a couple of WR1 finishes and two more as a WR2. All signs pointed toward a clear evolution given three of those four top-tier performances came from Week 12 on, supposedly anticipating a breakout in 2019.

But 2019 wasn’t such a great year for Williams. Not that it matters a lot, but Williams at least was one of the most stable players at the position finishing 11 games with between 7.5 and 14.3 PPR. The problem, though, is that while he didn’t drop below those 7.5 fantasy points often, he didn’t surpass 14.3 more than two times, and those games weren’t mindblowing either.

Are we happy with this Mike Williams? Was he simply overdrafted as a career WR2 at best? Or should we still hope for a fourth-year explosion coming his way and turning him into a true WR1 in 2020?

What Does History Say About Mike Williams’ Potential Breakout?

In order to see what are the chances of Williams becoming more than a subpar WR and turning into supernova one, I turned to the RotoViz Screener. First, I filtered the data to show me only wide receivers who played their first three seasons between 2010 and 2019 and that appeared in at least 40 games. There are 53 players fitting that profile. As I did with the college-comparables, I looked for similar three-year-spans from the past, and here are the results.

At first sight, I wouldn’t complain much. Mike Williams falls on the low end of this cohort, though, so it’s reasonable that I and quite a few other fantasy players are not too happy with his average performances.

Although he’s been one of the most efficient receivers of the bunch,1 Williams has only averaged 9.1 PPR points (third-least), 44 yards (fifth-least), 2.6 receptions (second-least), and 0.3 touchdowns (tied for fourth-least) among the 11 players. As you see, he doesn’t rank in the upper half of the pack in any of the stats shown other than in FPOE.

In order to know what are the chances of Williams eventually “hitting,” that is, having a 250-plus PPR season that would historically rank him as a borderline WR1,2 I have looked at the rest of the careers for the comparables above to see whether they reached that threshold of points in any of their next seasons.

Demaryius Thomas is a clear outlier. Thomas finished as WR6 overall in his third year and kept the top-12 level for three more years until he posted a couple of top-24 seasons before dropping a lot in 2018 in 2019 upon retirement. Other than that, the results are not very encouraging for Mike Williams going forward.

The only other wide receiver of the group to eventually reach the WR1 level was DeVante Parker after finally breaking out in 2019. Even as the WR11, his 246.2 PPR over the season fell short of the 250-point mark we set earlier.

Other than those two, no other player from the group has ever reached more than 223 PPR points after his third year, let alone the “required” 250 to reach WR1 status. Williams does not appear to have history on his side.3

What To Do With Mike Williams In 2020?

We know by now that Phillip Rivers’ time in Los Angeles is over. That might help Williams improve in 2020, as Rivers wasn’t the very best quarterback last season (he finished QB16 but only 25th in PPG) and Keenan Allen may not be the weapon of preference for whoever mans the position next.

While Allen provided a safe escape for Rivers thanks to his good short-area route running, Williams was always the boom/bust option on offense. Williams was targeted just 10 times within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage compared to 45 times at 15-plus yard depths in 2019. His air yards numbers combined for an average of 17.7 air yards per target that ranked second among all NFL wide receivers.

Allen is still the favorite to be the top option in 2020, which makes Williams a risky proposition at the very least. Don’t forget he will also battle for targets with tight end Hunter Henry and running backs Austin Ekeler and, possibly, Melvin Gordon, if the latter re-signs with the team.

The situation in Los Angeles and the historical data making 2018 Williams look like peak Williams align with what has happened during the last month of FFPC drafts.

Fantasy owners are reticent of Williams’ upside and getting him off the board at around the 105th overall pick since the start of February. Williams’ ADP has him ranked as the WR37 for the 2020 season, just ahead of soon-to-be rookies Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb, and fellow comparable Will Fuller (WR40). No fantasy player has drafted Williams before the eighth round, and he’s dropped as much as to the 133rd spot in the worst of cases.

Since the 2000 season, wide receivers with ADPs between 100 and 110 have gone to score an average of 147.4 points through the year while averaging 10.8 PPG. That per-game average is, coincidence or not, exactly what Williams posted in 2019. Even with that, though, William’s stock has dropped from last summer to this point in time, as he entered last season drafted as the WR24 while he’s now been knocked down 13 spots.

Assuming Williams can replicate his 2018 season in 2020 and reach around 180 PPR over 16 games, that would have ranked him WR35 this past year. The price is right for him currently but is trending downward. If his ADP keeps dropping, Williams will gain some potential value and boost his ROI at least on paper, making him sort of a good what-if proposition come draft day. Unless you can get him at a value or Los Angeles does something at QB that boosts his outlook, I’d advise passing on him as the potential return doesn’t look very promising.

Not long ago Jack Miller highlighted Mecole Hardman (ADP WR46) as a potential flier with upside given the high-power offense he plays, based on Shawn Siegele’s research on how second-year WRs are becoming fantasy football’s “biggest edge”. Cort Smith pointed at Darius Slayton (ADP WR41) as another potential second-year breakout candidate given his rookie-season numbers and historical comps. Both have similar ADP with arguably more upside. One of the comparables presented earlier, Tyler Boyd (WR28), is getting off the board around two rounds earlier but he’s worth pushing the pick to get him — he has raised his PPR from one season to the next in the last two years and finished as a WR2 twice in that span. The higher price would definitely be worth the investment.

Image Credit: Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Mike Williams.
  1. 1.2 reFPOE over three years, tied for the third-best mark.  (back)
  2. Taking wide receiver-seasons from 2000 to 2019, the average WR12 has scored 247.5 PPR through the season and averaged 15.6 PPG, thus the 250 PPR definition of a “hit” here.  (back)
  3. Of the players who, like Williams, had not yet had even a 200-point season by Year 3, only Parker and Brandon LaFell went on to reach a WR2 level in later seasons — both in Year 5.  (back)

Antonio Losada

Freelancer and FSWA Football Writer of the Year Finalist. Reach me @chapulana
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