Through two weeks of the NFL season, we can finally begin to make observations and start to see how each team has changed from the previous season. The Los Angeles Chargers were a team I had many questions about heading into 2021 for numerous reasons—the first being that this was the debut season under new head coach Brandon Staley, who was hired after just one season of coordinating experience where he led the Los Angeles Rams defense to an elite season in 2020. I was also excited to see how young sensation Justin Herbert looked heading into his sophomore year with all kinds of expectations and pressure while playing in a completely new offensive scheme with a new head coach and a new offensive coordinator (Joe Lombardi).
So far through two weeks, the Chargers appear to be even more explosive on offense than they were last season and have cut down some of the game-management issues which have haunted this team for what seems like an eternity.
While Herbert’s development under Lombardi was certainly my main area of focus for this Chargers offense heading into the season, there's another former first-round pick who has seemingly blossomed in this new look Chargers offense.
The former No. 7 overall pick back in 2017, Mike Williams entered the season with a ton to play for as he is in a contract year. So far, he has yet to disappoint. Williams has dominated the first few games of the 2021 season, posting 15 receptions for 173 receiving yards and two scores. He is currently fifth in the league in receptions, 13th in receiving yards, and tied for ninth in receiving touchdowns. Williams has clearly taken a step in his development and looks poised for a monster 2021 campaign.
Now, the question here is what has taken this former top-10 player so dang long to finally start to produce like a top-tier pass-catching option? The answer is a layered one and I’ll address this throughout this piece.
The first answer to this question begins with his health. Williams entered the league back in 2017 as a dominant prospect who was coming off one of the best seasons by a collegiate receiver in quite some time. Unfortunately for Williams, his rookie season got off to an extremely slow start as he suffered a lower back injury in OTAs where he herniated a disc. This injury sidelined Williams until the halfway point of the season and he never really found his way into a consistent role. He finished his rookie season with just 11 catches overall. Over the next three seasons, Williams dealt with back spasms, an AC joint sprain, and lingering hamstring injuries. Williams only missed three games entirely, but he would often come out of the contests as he tried to battle through. Now, Williams is finally completely healthy and ready to perform to earn a new contract.
The main reason for Williams' sudden development appears to be his new role in Lombardi’s offense. Lombardi, who was the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints offense over the last five years, has experience as an integral part of an offense known to develop star receivers and allow them to post monster stats.
One of the many talking points Lombardi went over this offseason was how he was so excited for Williams to be his new Michael Thomas in this offense. Like Thomas, Williams is the “X” receiver, which means when the offense is in 11-personnel, Williams is the receiver alone on the outside in a 3x1 formation. Lombardi told The Athletic over the summer, “As much as this offense will resemble New Orleans, he plays the 'X' and the ball has always kind of found the 'X' receiver in this offense.”
During Lombardi’s tenure with the Saints, Thomas averaged 117.5 receptions and 150.5 targets in his four healthy seasons. In Thomas' first year with Lombardi, he had 92 receptions and 121 targets as a rookie. Those numbers by Thomas would have seemed far out of reach for Williams when you consider that his career high for receptions entering the year was just 49 and his high for targets was just 90, both of which came in 2019. That being said, so far through two games, Williams has 15 receptions on 22 targets and is currently on pace for 187 targets this season—nearly double his career high. Clearly, Lombardi wasn’t joking when he said the ball finds its way to the “X” receiver.
Going back to the way Lombardi utilizes his receivers and really tries to maximize their strengths, Williams is being used completely differently than he has been used in his past seasons. So far through two games, Williams' average depth of target (aDot, as the kids say), is 9.3 yards. This is a significant drop-off from 2020 where his aDot was 14.6 and significantly lower than his 17.8 aDot in 2019. Under former head coach Anthony Lynn and his offensive coordinators, Williams was mainly used as a deep threat where he could use his outstanding ball skills and contested-catch ability to win deep on 50/50 situations. This allowed Williams to produce a ton of touchdown receptions, but never really allowed Williams to have consistent production.
While Williams is a tremendous deep threat, utilizing him in such a situational role was never the best use of his overall skill set. Williams is an athletic specimen at 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He is excellent with the ball in his hands after the catch and is smooth and sudden for a man his size. He has good flexibility and can sink his hips and get in and out of breaks very well. In Lombardi’s offense, Williams is running a lot more shallow routes, which allows him to get the ball in his hands early where has shown to be able to create and gain yardage. We are finally starting to see the receiver we saw at Clemson who won in a variety of ways, whether it was quick slants, comebacks, receiver screens, or deep balls.
Williams' productive season couldn’t have come at a better time for both himself and the Chargers. As mentioned before, Williams is in a contract year and needs to put up good statistics and film for the whole season in order to earn a big contract with the Chargers or another team. For the Chargers, having Williams take this next step is going to be huge. Already having a top-10 receiver in Keenan Allen, defenses will have major issues finding ways to cover both Allen and Williams while also accounting for weapons like running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Jared Cook. If Williams stays healthy, it appears he is in store for a huge season, and I’m excited to see this Chargers offense take the next step alongside him.