The Chargers Ensured Justin Herbert’s 2021 Breakout With a Risky $15.7 Million Gift He Received Before Even Entering the League

In the days after the Los Angeles Chargers selected Justin Herbert in the 2020 NFL Draft, the franchise needed to make a difficult choice on Mike Williams’ future.

Both decisions have more than paid off thus far. Herbert is evolving into one of the league’s top young quarterbacks and Williams, a former All-ACC receiver at Clemson, is showcasing why the Chargers selected him seventh overall in the 2017 draft.

Mike Williams has grown into one of Justin Herbert’s most important targets

No one ever accused the Chargers of failing to supply Herbert with weapons entering the 2021 season. Veteran receiver Keenan Allen has made four straight Pro Bowls and finished eight receiving yards shy of hitting the 1,000-yard club last season. Austin Ekeler is a versatile all-purpose running back who already has 279 yards from scrimmage this year.

Then, there’s Williams, who has been a dangerous big-play receiver at points in his career. Although he never topped 50 receptions in any of his first four seasons, he averaged 16.7 yards on 264 career catches. Those aren’t the numbers one might expect from a top-10 draft pick, but he’s been productive in his own way.

Now in his fifth season, Williams is playing a more traditional role in the Chargers’ offense. He hauled in 22 catches for 295 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s first three games.

The 6-foot-4 receiver used his size to his advantage in a 30-24 upset over Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. Williams hauled in seven catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score in the final minute, for his fifth career 100-yard game.

Williams has proved the Chargers were right in picking up his fifth-year option

Williams had 103 catches in his first three seasons, which looks fine until you remember he went seventh overall. Players who go that high are supposed to total 100 catches by their 20th game, not their 41st.

In the spring of 2020, the team needed to decide if it was worth picking up Williams’ fifth-year option. On the one hand, he recorded 1,001 yards on 49 catches — that’s a staggering 20.4 yards per reception — and started all 15 games. However, there existed a clear risk in guaranteeing a 2021 salary for a player who might very well have been a one-year wonder.

The Chargers drafted Herbert sixth overall on April 23, 2020. Seven days later, the team picked up Williams’ fifth-year option in hopes he’d build off his impressive 2019 numbers.

Critics had additional incentive to question the move when Williams’ receiving yards dropped from 1,001 to 756 in 15 games and 11 starts last season. However, he only had one fewer reception and three more touchdowns in his first year catching passes from Herbert. If he underperformed on a $15.7 million salary in 2021, the Chargers could move on in 2022 without any problems.

Now, don’t be surprised to see the Chargers try breaking the bank for their prolific wideout in hopes of keeping him in Los Angeles after this season.

Herbert should be extremely excited by Williams’ future in Los Angeles

Through the 2021 season’s first three weeks, Williams found himself on pace for 124 catches, 1,671 yards, and 22 touchdowns. Those are numbers you’d expect from someone on a $100 million contract, not a player on a fifth-year option in a contract year.

Even in the 17-game season, it’ll be a bit too much to ask Williams to even hit 100 catches or 1,200 yards. It is clear, though, that the Chargers value what he brings to the offense and how he can use his size to his advantage.

Consider this for a second. Williams is averaging 13.4 yards per catch, the lowest number since averaging fewer than nine yards per reception as a rookie in 2017. The Chargers don’t need him to be a downfield vertical threat anymore. Instead, he’s evolving into a reliable three-down receiver, which is precisely what they’d want from a former top-10 pick.

The next step for Williams is to improve his hands. He’s already dropped three of the 31 passes thrown his way this year. There’s still plenty of time to cut down on the drops ahead of what can be a deep playoff run for a team searching for its first AFC title since 1994.

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