As Justin Herbert launched the ball into the air, only one thought ran through Mike Williams’s mind. Do not drop this ball. The Chargers receiver had already done the hard part, pulling away from Browns cornerback AJ Green and into daylight. He just needed to stay composed. Herbert’s pass floated in, and Williams clasped the ball neatly into his hands before legging out the remaining 30 yards. He raised a finger as he crossed into the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown during the second quarter of Los Angeles’s Week 5 win.
“There’s not so many plays where you’re wide open like that,” Williams said after the game. “You get the big eyes and don’t wanna drop it.”
The Chargers trailed 27-21 early in the fourth quarter when Williams breached Cleveland’s secondary for the second time. On first-and-10 near midfield, Los Angeles’s offense went hurry-up and called a play-action pass. Williams left the deep safety flat-footed as he cut upfield on a post pattern. Herbert let the ball go, striking a jump-shooter’s pose as he hit his wideout, who turned around and leapt in celebration for his second score of the day.
It was the highlight of Williams’s sensational outing, and the apex in what has become a breakout season for the fifth-year pro. On Sunday, he caught eight passes for a career-high 165 yards on 16 targets. Through five games, Williams is making it look like everything comes easily. His 471 receiving yards are fifth most in the league. His six receiving scores are the most. He’s recorded seven catches of 20 yards or more, tied for the sixth most, and has 22 first-down receptions. The former Clemson star is putting up big-time numbers in a crucial season; Los Angeles drafted Williams with the seventh pick of the 2017 draft, and he’s in the final year of his rookie deal. It’s taken awhile, but Williams is finally looking like the player the Chargers hoped for four years ago.
As a rookie, Williams was limited to 10 games by a herniated disk, and recorded only 11 catches for 95 yards. He notched 43 catches for 664 yards and 10 scores in 2018, then had a promising campaign in 2019, when he caught 49 passes for 1,001 yards and two scores, leading the league with 20.4 yards per catch. Last season, his numbers dropped to 48 catches for 756 yards and five TDs as he battled an AC joint sprain and a hamstring injury. But after Los Angeles hired coach Brandon Staley, who handpicked former longtime Saints assistant Joe Lombardi as his offensive coordinator, many around the Chargers were open about how they expected Williams’s role in the offense to increase. The 6-foot-4 218-pounder possesses imposing height, and touts sub-4.5 40-yard dash speed that stretches defenses vertically.
“The guy’s a fantastic receiver,” Staley said of Williams on Sunday. “He’s a complete receiver. He can beat you in the deep part of the field, he can beat you in the first or second level. He can move through the formation. What you’re seeing is a guy who, when you need a win, can. He can. The guy’s a clutch player and I’m super proud of him.”
When you ask the 27-year-old Williams why his breakout is happening now, he thinks the reason is simple.
“I’ll probably say just getting a lot more opportunities,” Williams said. “That’s the main thing: Just to get the ball in my hand, make plays.”
Lombardi arrived from Sean Payton’s Saints, which force-fed two-time All-Pro Mike Thomas 602 targets over his first four seasons. The fewest targets Thomas notched in a single season during that span was 121, during his rookie year; in 2019, he registered a whopping 185, catching a record 149 passes en route to winning Offensive Player of the Year. Williams is averaging 6.2 receptions and 10.2 targets per game this year, on pace to finish with 105 catches and 173 targets in a 17-game season. Williams’s route charts for this season reveal just how frequently the Chargers have tried to get him the ball, and how creative they’ve been in doing so:
“As much as this offense will resemble New Orleans, [Williams] plays the ‘X’ and the ball has always kind of found the X receiver in this offense,” Lombardi told reporters in June. “I think that there will be some natural production that comes his way, because of the nature of the offense.” So far, that’s come to fruition. For those outside of Los Angeles, though, Williams is one of the surprises of the 2021 campaign, with his team’s 4-1 start and Herbert’s superstar leap as two of the few revelations more noteworthy than his own breakthrough.
“I think we’ve done a much better job of spreading it out and getting him the ball,” Herbert said Sunday. “Noticing that he’s a matchup nightmare, and what he’s been able to do—that’s not luck. He’s worked hard and done a lot of work in the offseason. All those times we’ve thrown in the offseason are paying off.”
This season, the Chargers are letting Williams fly. According to Next Gen Stats, no wideout has run more go routes than Williams’s 239 since the start of last season. His eight receptions on go routes leads the NFL, and his four TDs on such patterns are tied for the most in the league. L.A. has also shown trust in Williams to win off the line of scrimmage on shorter routes like sticks, curls, slants, and flats. Against the Chiefs in Week 3, Herbert targeted Williams on a vertical route on L.A.’s final drive before finding him for the game-winning score on a throw into the flat. The Chargers have found a way to unlock Williams in every area of their passing game, supplementing the stars they already have in Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler.
For Staley, Williams’s revelation is a testament to his it-takes-everyone ideal. On Monday, a reporter noted that Los Angeles fan bases have fawned over high-scoring offenses in the past, especially the Showtime Lakers. The reporter asked Staley whether he’d considered that the Chargers’ high-powered offense—which is averaging 28.4 points per game and has generated the fourth-most explosive passing plays so far this year—could help the team gain momentum with fans. Staley explained that modern football almost necessitates having an explosive offense.
“You have to be able to score in this league,” Staley said. “I think that when you can do it the way we’re doing it where, going back to the Lakers if you want to make that comparison, there were a lot of good offensive players on the Lakers. It wasn’t just Magic and Kareem. You had a lot of players, right? You have Michael Cooper, James Worthy, Byron Scott. You had a lot of guys making plays on that team, and I think that most people that watch the game, like to see a lot of people touch the ball. They want to see that continuity, where it’s not just one person that’s dominating the ball. They want to see a team that can score a lot of different ways.”
Williams’s emergence has complemented the Chargers’ other playmakers. Against the Raiders in Week 4, it was L.A.’s tight end tandem of Jared Cook and Donald Parham Jr. that led the way, tallying a pair of receiving scores. Ekeler has been dynamic in both the receiving and rushing game, with his performance against the Browns—two rushing TDs and one receiving TD—helping provide balance for the Chargers offense. But Williams has clearly established his role within L.A.’s offense in a season when he’s needed to. The 2022 NFL free agent class is expected to feature several star wideouts, such as Green Bay’s Davante Adams, Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, Chicago’s Allen Robinson II, and Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. Last offseason, teams were hesitant to pursue the best available veteran receivers. To avoid finding himself in a similar situation, especially given his injury history, Williams needs to put together a huge year. Thus far, he has.
“I just gotta keep building,” Williams said. “Every week, I try to get better. Obviously, I had a career game [on Sunday], but next week I want to get better.”
“Sometimes it goes on for guys at different times in the league and sometimes you have to join up with the right people,” Staley said. “Timing and all these factors come into play, and they’re all in play. We have a really good offensive line; it’s blocking well. We have a bunch of weapons around him. And then we have a quarterback that’s really unique. I’m just super proud of him, and we’re going to need all that production. We needed all 165 yards today—and two touchdowns—for us to win.”