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What You Need to Know:
-- Williams led the league in yards per catch in 2019.
-- His catch rate and TD rate fell significantly vs. 2018.
-- Williams’ average target depth climbed, then climbed again last season.
-- The QB change might not be bad for him.
The Williams Rollercoaster
Three years in, we’re still learning what to expect from Williams. And it seems the Chargers might still be learning out to use him.
Williams basically lost his rookie season to a back injury. His top-31 fantasy finish across formats in Year 2 could count as a breakthrough, but Williams did it on a clearly unsustainable 23.3% TD rate while tying for just 64th among wideouts in targets.
Then 2019 brought an over-correction in the TD department. Blame some bad luck. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams saw 12 end-zone targets each of the past 2 years. In 2018, he scored on 7 of those; last year, just 1. In each case, he led all Chargers in end-zone looks.
Outside of the end zone, Williams saw his role shift. He climbed from 12.9% target share to 15.9% (for the 15 games he played), and those targets extended further downfield. According to PFF, Williams saw a 12.04-yard average depth of target in 2017, then 10.38 in 2018 (his 1st full season). That leaped in 2019.
Overall, his 18.27 ADOT ranked 3rd among all players. Williams’ average, though, went from 15.94 in the season’s 1st 8 games to 21.16 over the final 8. Ken Whisenhunt remained the OC for the 1st half of the year. Then he got fired, and Shane Steichen took over for the 2nd half.
Williams’ deeper game helped drop his catch rate -- from 65.2% to 54.4% -- but it also helped him lead the NFL in yards per catch at 20.4.
The wideout also revealed in December that he spent the whole season playing through a lingering knee sprain.
“The knee would just be hurting for like 20 seconds, like the worst pain ever,” he told Daniel Popper of The Athletic. “And then I’d just get on the sideline, a couple plays out, a few plays out, and it would just kind of go away.”
Changes for the Better?
This season brings a couple of key differences for Williams -- beyond a potentially healthier right knee. First, the Chargers retained Steichen as OC, which would seem to bode well for Williams’ continued downfield role.
Second, the team will have a new QB for the 1st time since 2006. Philip Rivers is gone to Indy, taking with him a track record of efficiency in completion rate, yards per attempt and TD rate. But that change just might be good for Williams as well.
According to PFF, Rivers posted the worst passer rating of his career on deep balls last season. From 2006-2018, Rivers’ rating on such throws (20+ yards downfield) dipped below 83.2 just once. His median rating over that span: 90.7.
In 2019, however, Rivers posted an awful 59.1 rating. That ranked 32nd among 36 QBs with at least 20 downfield attempts. Summer will tell us who will step in for Rivers, but both competitors bring downfield upside.
Tyrod Taylor spent 2015-17 starting for the Bills (the 1st 2 of those seasons with current Chargers HC Anthony Lynn on the Buffalo staff). He finished those years ranked 1st, 13th and 8th in percentage of passes thrown deep, according to PFF. Taylor posted passer ratings of 109.5, 85.8 and 83.3 on those passes -- with a WR corps that declined in talent over the 3 years.
We’ll see about how successful a 31-year-old (in August) Taylor will be throwing deep, but he has at least showed that he likes taking those shots.
Justin Herbert, meanwhile, is known primarily for his rare arm strength and earned above-average PFF grades for his deep passing. Herbert’s primary inconsistency has come when he needs to throttle down for shorter-range passes. That aspect seems like less of an issue for Williams than it could be for other Chargers pass-catchers. We’ll see what it means for those end-zone targets.
The team has thus far said that Taylor will get the 1st shot to start, but history tells us Herbert will spend more games behind center this year.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line:
The Chargers have changed plenty in their offense over the past year, but they haven’t added target competition for Williams. There’s room for the young WR to continue growing his target share. Even at his 2019 level, though, Williams presents upside with his leading roles in the downfield game and on end-zone looks. The change from Philip Rivers to Justin Herbert could unlock the deep ball even more. And Williams looks due for some positive regression after 2019 over-corrected downward from his 10-TD 2018. Williams will remain volatile week to week -- even by WR standards -- but he carries upside from his mid-40s ADP.