Letting Mike Williams Walk Would Be A Mistake For The Chargers
The start of the free agency period is nearly upon us, and for the Los Angeles Chargers that conversation starts with two things: 1) does Bryan Bulaga get cut or retire? And 2) what becomes of Mike Williams? Are the Chargers able to come to terms with the former first-round pick on a long-term deal? Will they let him test his market elsewhere? Or will they place the franchise tag on him?
The Chargers, along with the rest of the NFL, will be able to start placing players on the franchise tag starting today (February 22nd) and will have up until March 8th to do so. Williams’ future has been an incredibly hot topic on social media for Chargers fans over the last two years as he prepared to play the 2021 season on the fifth-year option, and now as he hits free agency for the first time. Personally, I still believe the franchise tag makes the most sense, for both sides. Tagging him would pay him north of $18 million for 2022, while an extension would likely come up a little short of that number on a yearly basis. What am I certain of, is that letting Williams walk would be a mistake.
First and foremost, is Williams’ play this past season. Williams set new career highs in targets (122), receptions (76), and yards (1,146) while adding nine touchdowns on the season. His yardage total was good enough for the 11th most in the league and his nine touchdowns placed him ninth in the league. He also set a career-high in yards per route run with 1.97 and first downs generated with 51 (17th most in the league).
We needed to see him grow into a more well-rounded receiver, especially after Joe Lombardi threw out a Michael Thomas comparison last spring, and I happen to think we did see that come to fruition. Williams became much more involved in the short and intermediate areas of the field and was often the recipient of designed “after the catch” play calls.
Yes, there were still some inconsistencies and he did have seven drops which aren’t great. But he maintained his big-play ability, averaging over 15 yards per reception, and was crucial to the team’s success in clutch situations. For the most part, I think all of us would have been over the moon if we knew going into the season that Williams would perform like a borderline top-12 wide receiver.From a roster and team-building standpoint, the multi-million dollar question the Chargers will have to ask themselves is can they reasonably replace what Williams brings to the table? The answer to that question, in my opinion, is no. Tom Telesco has left holes all over the roster because of his inability to be proactive, including at wide receiver. As such, the Chargers do not have a viable plan in place if they lose Williams.
Everyone loves Keenan Allen, but he is being paid as the third-best receiver in the league and he might not even be top 10 anymore with all the young guns like Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Deebo Samuel establishing themselves as dominant playmakers. Josh Palmer showed some flashes at the end of his rookie season but is definitely not ready to fill Williams’ role. Jalen Guyton is a restricted free agent and frankly should be a number four, not even a number three which is what he has been the last two years. The team surprisingly cut Tyron Johnson after having a stellar training camp last summer. Add in the combination of Joe Reed and K.J. Hill barely seeing the field, and you get a legitimate lack of depth behind Allen and Williams.
Could the Chargers sign a cheaper free agent to replace him? Sure, but the two most common social media replacements DJ Chark and Michael Gallup each have injury red flags. Chargers fans should know better than most that free agency is often a fickle business (see: Travis Benjamin, Eddie Royal, Robert Meachem, etc.).
The Draft is always a possibility, but losing Williams means you absolutely have to spend your first-round pick on a wide receiver to replace him, given the win-now window with Justin Herbert at quarterback. Could a prospect like Drake London, Treylon Burks, or Garrett Wilson step into that role right away and be successful? Yes, it’s possible. There’s also no guarantee that those players pan out right away, for every Jefferson or Chase that comes through the draft there is a Jalen Reagor or Kadarius Toney. (Mind you this is all before mentioning the absolute travesty that was the Chargers 2021 defense.)
The Chargers know what they have in Williams, they know how important he has become to Herbert’s performance as a quarterback, they know how to maximize his potential in Lombardi’s system. The devil you know is always better than the devil you don’t.
Historically speaking, we know that having a demi-god at quarterback on a rookie contract has become a bit of a golden ticket. The low cap number gives teams so many options to support that young quarterback. That usually means acquiring MORE assets, not fewer.
I think the Chargers are similar to the Packers in the late 2000s in this regard. They headed into the 2008 season having assembled a supporting cast around Aaron Rodgers that included wideouts Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson. After having a career season, Jennings was slated to hit free agency for the first time after becoming a high-end number two receiver alongside Driver. Unlike the Chargers, the Packers at that time did have a viable replacement plan in Nelson. It would have made financial sense to move on. Still, the Packers realized they needed to maximize Rodgers’ window and they agreed on an extension with Jennings that made him the fifth highest-paid receiver in the league at the time. Jennings carried the torch over the next three seasons while Driver slowly proceeded towards the twilight of his career and Nelson began his ascension. The Packers and Rodgers rode that trio to a Super Bowl victory in 2010. Imagine what would have happened if they had decided to let Jennings walk?Ultimately, I believe that tagging Williams gives the Chargers the most flexibility, both financially and in terms of building out their roster. Frankly, I think it’s a no-brainer. Being on the hook for $18 million for one more season of Williams is an easy pill to swallow when taking into consideration his own production, the current window of Herbert’s rookie deal, the lack of a viable replacement plant, and the drastic needs on defense.
This would allow them to run it back with the group from last year, ideally add another day two/day three draft prospect – preferably a field stretcher, and then reassess where everything stands after 2022. If Williams’ 2021 production continues into 2022, then he earns another contract and they can go from there. If he doesn’t and Palmer + the rookie receiver to be named later prove that they can step into his shoes, then they can let him walk. If the goal is to maximize Herbert’s rookie window (and frankly keep him happy), you simply cannot accomplish that goal by letting a player like Williams walk.