Mike Williams has endeared himself in the hearts of all Chargers fans because he truly leaves everything on the field. He sacrifices his body for big plays like no other receiver in the league. Unfortunately, that has caused Williams to get banged up on a regular basis. He has gone on record saying that he essentially played all of 2019 despite excruciating knee pain.
Now, that has led to an AC joint sprain after leaping up for a grab in practice earlier this week. Early reports were optimistic because his collarbone was spared. Some media members seemed to think that the positive diagnosis would allow Williams to be ready to play by week one when the Chargers head to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals and number one overall pick Joe Burrow. Head Coach Anthony Lynn did not seem to share the optimism, leaving major doubt that Williams would be ready by then.
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that Williams could be looking at a two to four-week recovery timetable. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper disputed that report and speculated that the Chargers could be looking at a six to eight-week absence from the big-play receiver.
If Williams does miss any actual game time, that would be a HUGE loss for the Chargers. Not only has he established himself as one of the best deep threats in the league, but he is also fresh off his first 1,000-yard season. More importantly, it seemed like he was on the verge of expanding his game. Fellow Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen has been very complimentary of Williams’ footwork and route running so far in training camp, which is a necessary progression in his career.
We all knew that his style of play from 2018 and 2019 was not really sustainable and that eventually, he would have to evolve into more than just a big-play threat. Unfortunately, that style seems to have caught up to him now.
If this injury does drag on to the eight-week timeframe speculated by Popper, that would mean Williams would miss at least the first four games for the Chargers. This is a franchise that is notorious for slow starts, and the first five games on the schedule are arguably its toughest stretch of five games.
The Chargers should be able to handle the Bengals and Panthers without Williams in the active lineup, although, as mentioned, this franchise is notorious for slow starts.
Where losing Williams hurts most is for weeks two, four, and five. Facing the defending Super Bowl Champion and divisional rival Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at less than full strength is not ideal. I can’t imagine the Chargers coming out of that stretch with even two victories without all their key players present and accounted for.
Four to eight weeks is obviously a big window, and there likely won’t be any clarity on his progress for a couple of weeks. For now, I think Chargers fans should prepare for Williams to miss the season opener. If he plays after that, I’ll be happy.
That being said, the Chargers did invest two draft picks in the wide receiver position and are having a reportedly intense battle for the openings on the depth chart after Allen and Williams. So let’s break down the three players who must step up in Williams’ absence.
1. Hunter Henry
I know, you were probably expecting one of those young wide receivers first. The problem with that is that none of the other receivers on the depth chart offer you what Williams brings to the table in terms of size and athleticism. Hunter Henry is now the team’s biggest target and the most important one in the red zone.
How everyone in this offense is going to be used under a new scheme and with a new quarterback remains to be seen, but I think it’s safe to say we were all expecting Williams to be used frequently in jump ball and red zone scenarios. Allen will still be used frequently in the red zone, but I would expect Henry to be second in line for red zone targets while Williams is out.
The issue with Henry has always been health, but if he can stay healthy I do expect him to be hyper-productive this year. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has a strong history of using his tight end quite frequently, now a lot of that is because he didn’t really have much of a choice in Buffalo, but look for that to continue with Henry.
2. Jalen Guyton
Third-year receiver Jalen Guyton has been the player that’s reportedly been getting the most reps with the first-team offense. Head Coach Anthony Lynn has said that the team wants a complimentary piece next to Allen and Williams that brings speed to the table. Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin have been the receivers to hold this role in previous years, and both of them are most known for their speed. Guyton is no different.
The former North Texas standout is the only offensive player on the roster that brings sub 4.4 speed to the table. That speed becomes even more crucial now to keep things open for Allen, Henry, and Austin Ekeler to a lesser extent.
Guyton initially was an undrafted free agent for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, but he spent most of the 2019 season on the Chargers practice squad. The knock on Guyton is that he struggles with drops. In the preseason last year, there were multiple times he dropped passes from Easton Stick that likely would have been touchdowns, something that also happened in his lone regular-season appearance at Jacksonville. Having top tier speed is great, but if he can’t catch the ball on a consistent basis, Chargers fans could be looking at Benjamin 2.0
3. K.J. Hill
If there’s a player who benefits the most from Williams’ absence, I believe that it’s seventh-round draft pick K.J. Hill. The all-time leader in receptions at Ohio State is the only one of the younger group who truly has the skill set to be a number two wide receiver to me. While he wouldn’t bring the big-play ability that Williams does to the table, he is the one player in this group that brings reliability. Guyton and Tyron Johnson both struggle with drops. Joe Reed’s role seems to be headed more towards a gadget player and special teams than number two receiver.
Hill caught 201 passes for the Buckeyes over his career and while he was never the true number one target, he showed on a consistent basis that he was the most reliable. If you go back and watch Hill’s college tape, you’ll notice almost instantly that whenever they were faced in a must convert situation, they went to Hill. Not to Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, or Chris Olave. Third and seven on the road at Penn State, they went to Hill for the game-winning touchdown. Third and long against Clemson, they went to Hill to spark a 90+ yard drive for a touchdown. In terms of skill set, he’s definitely more Allen than Williams.
The knock on him coming out was that he was viewed only as a slot receiver, but Daniel Popper has reported that Hill has been lining up outside with the first-team offense in Williams’ absence. Allen also went on NFL network and gave the former Buckeye standout some high praise as well.
If everyone were healthy, he’d probably be headed for the fourth spot on the depth chart, because the Chargers do want speed at the wide receiver three spot. However, without Williams, I am much more comfortable with Hill as the number two than any of the other players I’ve mentioned.
The reality of this situation is two parts. First, the Chargers are likely going to have much less passing volume in 2020 than they did in 2019. Philip Rivers attempted 591 passes last year, which ultimately led to the Chargers nearly having three 1,000 yard receivers. I would not be surprised if Taylor (who I expect to start the whole season barring injury) does not even eclipse 500 pass attempts this year. Taylor’s career-high in pass attempts right now is 436. I think he likely ends up somewhere around 480 pass attempts.
Second, as I’ve stated, there is no one on the Chargers roster who can do what Williams can do in the vertical passing game. All of the other players were brought in to compliment him and Allen.
Not only that, but all the other options are also young and unproven players: two rookies and two former undrafted free agents. So while I think Hill probably has the edge in terms of reps, that does not mean that will lead to a lot of production. Rather, I would expect Allen, Henry, and Ekeler to get a larger portion of the target share in Williams’ absence. I’m not expecting a full-on Andre Patton situation, where whoever fills in at wide receiver two plays a lot and never touches the ball, but I just don’t think it’s very realistic to expect a ton out of these young players just yet.