Mike Williams Has Set Himself Up for a Massive Contract This Offseason
Even though the main story for the 2021 Los Angeles Chargers is how good they have looked, Mike Williams has other things on his mind.
The former No. 7 pick can look forward to the next league year knowing significant financial reward is on the horizon as he enjoys a breakout campaign.
Williams will be a free agent this offseason, and having only once topped 1,000 receiving yards in a career defined by volatile production to this point, he could hardly have timed his most consistent season in the league any better.
Through six games, Williams has racked up 498 receiving yards, tied for second-most in the league. He's on pace to comfortably surpass the career-high 1,001 receiving yards he managed in 2019.
That season saw Williams find the endzone just twice. A year earlier in 2018, Williams had 10 receiving touchdowns and a further score on the ground. Williams has long since been a substantial threat in the red zone and a receiver capable of making big plays downfield, but the 2021 campaign is the first in which he has displayed each of those qualities consistently, setting Williams up for a massive payday.
A Larger Share Of The Pie
Williams' increased production is largely a product of increased opportunity.
The Chargers are averaging 41.2 passing players per game, the third-most in the NFL. Williams' eight red-zone targets are the fifth-most in the league while his 10 deep targets are third. Williams, according to the NFL's NextGen Stats, has accounted for 39.2% of the Chargers' air yards through the first five weeks of the season.
Blessed with a combination of size and speed that led the Chargers to spend a top-10 pick on Williams in 2017, it is perhaps no surprise that he is taking advantage of the additional targets coming his way this season, especially when playing with a quarterback in Justin Herbert who is operating at an MVP level.
Open Field Progress
The book on Williams is well established at this point. He is a receiver who uses his size excellently to win against press coverage and create space at the catch point while his catch radius and body control makes him a nightmare to stop in the red zone.
Williams does not have game-breaking speed by any stretch but is fast enough for defenses to have to respect him on downfield routes.
Where he is progressing is as a threat in the open field.
Per NextGen Stats, Williams is averaging 5.9 yards after catch per reception in 2021. While that is some way short of the league-leading mark of 11.9 set by Cleveland Browns' tight end David Njoku, Williams is exceeding expectations in terms of yardage after the catch.
Indeed, he is outperforming his expected YAC per reception of 4.8 by over a yard. That may not seem like a huge margin but it is a clear improvement on 2020, when Williams averaged 3.4 YAC per reception when expected to record 2.7 per catch.
Those numbers are influenced somewhat by two significant coverage busts that allowed Williams to stroll in for a pair of scores in the Chargers' shootout win over the Browns in Week 5. Yet there is no question Williams is improving with the ball in his hands and an increasingly well-rounded skill set has cemented him as one of the league's most efficient receivers this season.
Williams ranks third among wide receivers in Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which is a measure of total value. The only two receivers above him are Justin Jefferson and Tyreek Hill.
That is excellent company to keep and, as long Williams maintains that efficiency, he should be able to cash in with a lucrative contract.
Chargers' Financial Flexibility
The kind of payday Williams receives in 2022 will hinge partially on how much the salary cap increases after teams had to deal with a shrinking cap this past offseason.
Spotrac projects the cap to increase to $208 million, giving teams significantly more wiggle room to hand out huge contracts.
Kenny Golladay was the recipient of the largest free-agent wide receiver contract in 2021. The Giants giving him $72 million over four years at an average annual value of $18 million with $40 million guaranteed.
Golladay came into the year with more 1,000-yard seasons to his name than Williams, having had successive four-figure years with the Detroit Lions in 2018 and 2019. However, Golladay has never gotten off to a hot-start like Williams' start to 2021.
That potentially gives Williams and his representatives the scope to ask for a contract that is a tick above what Golladay received, though the Chargers have the flexibility to play the waiting game.
The Chargers are scheduled to have the third-most cap space in 2022 with just over $78 million to spend, per Spotrac, meaning they would have the means to meet Williams' demands. They also have the option of tying him to the franchise tag next season and giving themselves exclusive negotiating rights.
OverTheCap projects the 2022 wide receiver franchise tag value at $19.1 million. Though Williams would ideally like the security of a long-term deal, the franchise tag would allow him to be paid at a level reflective of his current 2021 production.
Williams is realizing his potential at exactly the right moment and is on course to reap the rewards with on-field success for himself and the Chargers. Whether it is through the franchise tag or a long-term deal, he can expect a substantial jump in salary next offseason.
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