Fantasy football darlings: They often exist outside of logic. They aren't always propped up with stats or projections or even logic-based arguments. Unwarranted hype can be a powerful fantasy football aphrodisiac. We see players we like, and because they have talent, and they performed well in small sample sizes, we say "That's our guy! That's a player I need to target!"
That unfiltered affection can compromise our ability to make sound judgments about a player, though. We get those big cartoon hearts in our eyes and we refuse to see the warning signs swirling overhead. We swat away all the rational counterarguments and we proclaim "Mike Williams will be a league winner in 2019!"
And that way, my friends, lies danger.
2018 Finish: WR32
In his first full season, Mike Williams' per game averages were as follows: 4.1 targets, 2.7 receptions, 41.5 yards, and 0.6 touchdowns. On a weekly basis, Williams looked good but not great, finishing as the WR42 in points per game. But a few choice injuries to other wide receivers gave him a nicer end-of-year fantasy finish than those numbers suggest.
Those numbers, by the way, are awfully meek for a player currently being drafted in the 5th round. It's the touchdown stat that's really got him shooting up fantasy draft boards. But when you look at his efficiency numbers, that's where trouble starts to brew.
Williams scored a touchdown on 15% of his targets, and on 23% of his receptions. Those numbers are better than Tyler Lockett, who gets equal amounts of praise and skepticism for "breaking football" last year with his outrageous level of efficiency.
Williams' yards per reception was good for 11th at the position with 15.4, another remarkable feat of efficiency. Both of these stats look absolutely ripe for regression. So the question for 2019 is whether Williams can make up for a dip in efficiency by gaining an increased role in the offense. He does, after all, possess all the physical tools to make himself an attractive target for Philip Rivers. Supposedly.
An Unfortunate Player Comp
Williams is a beastly man who can easily outmuscle defenders, like they're infants wearing shoulder pads. His frame helps him make catches even when he fails to get separation, which happens quite frequently. He's a prototypical jump ball receiver who can contort his body in any way he needs to in order to come down with the catch.
That's an exciting type of player to watch, but it's a dangerous type to fall in love with for fantasy football. After all, even Kelvin Benjamin looked great for a brief time in his career...
Yep. That's right. I just compared Mike Williams, fantasy darling, to Kelvin Benjamin, fantasy pariah. Before you try to reach through the screen and strangle me (that's not how the internet works, by the way), let's just do some quick player comparisons.
Both were 1st round picks, both ran a similar 40-yard dash, and both have an identical vertical. But here's the tougher pill to swallow: Benjamin actually has better agility metrics, a bigger catch radius, and (gulp) a better height adjusted speed score.
And look, I know these measurements aren't the be-all and end-all for evaluating a player's potential. And to be fair to Williams, he had a much earlier breakout age and a higher College Dominator score than Benjamin. BUT you can't completely ignore these red flags in his profile, either.
Especially when they're introduced alongside some other situational problems...
A Brief History of Chargers Playcalling
Ken Whisenhunt has been the offensive coordinator for the Chargers since 2016, which is a big enough sample size to pull some relevant stats for how this offense might look in 2019.
In that 3 years, the team has averaged 558 passes each season, good for 56% of their total plays. The league average over that span is 557 passes, so Rivers is sitting right on the NFL mean. He's not an exceptionally high volume quarterback.
Just for fun, let's include Whisenhunt's tenure as the Titans head coach from 2015-2016. In that span, his team averaged 532 pass plays per season, also good for 56% of the Titans' total play calls. So you could say he's pretty consistent like that.
But despite being mostly average in how often they're throwing the ball, the Chargers have had tremendous success getting into the end zone. Under Whisenhunt, Rivers has averaged 31 touchdowns per season, better than the league average of 25. And he's done so while spreading the ball around to everyone with a pulse.
In fact, Mike Williams is the only player in that span to notch double digit receiving touchdowns. Even crazier? Williams is the first player in a Whisenhunt-led offense to see more than 8 TDs since 2009. (That other player was Larry Fitzgerald by the way.) Maybe you view that as a positive for the young wide receiver. I view it as another area of regression.
Target Share Matters
The history of the No. 2 receiver with Whisenhunt's Chargers hasn't exactly been a dream for fantasy owners, either. The team's WR2 has averaged 14% of the total target share, and one of those years was super inflated thanks to Keenan Allen's absence. Removing the Allen injury year, it dips down to just 12%. Williams saw 12.8% in 2018.
For reference, Cooper Kupp had an almost 10% share of the Rams' yearly receiving targets in 2018. And he missed 8 games. So...yeah. That's a big yikes on the target front for Williams. Fun fact alert: According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Kupp is currently going in the early 5th round, only a handful of spots before Williams.
Here are just a few other No. 2 receivers who had more than 12.8% of their team's targets: John Brown (17.4%), Donte Moncrief (16.6%), Mohamed Sanu (15.2%), Jermaine Kearse (14.5%), and Antonio Callway (13.7%). Are they better players than Mike Williams? Probably not. But their situations are much better for fantasy purposes.
If you really want to get depressed, you can take a trip back to Whisenhunt's Tennessee days, where the WR2 in those offenses averaged a paltry 7% of the market share. Now, I don't expect Williams' role to shrink to that size, but again, it shows a clear pattern in how Whisenhunt operates his offense.
From a pure playcalling perspective (alliteration for the win!), the Chargers 2019 season looks to shake out like this: 560-ish passing plays, with Williams getting somewhere between 67 and 78 targets. Which is...not great. Even the high end of that target prediction is comparable to 2018 Josh Doctson numbers. Are you drafting 2018 Josh Doctson numbers in the 5th round? I'm not.
Red Zone Stats
Here it is. Where Mike Williams really buttered his bread in 2018. In his sophomore year, Williams red zone numbers looked like this: 14 targets, 8 receptions, 7 TDs, 57.14% catch rate, and a 19.4% target share. Now those are numbers to get behind.
Unfortunately, last year Hunter Henry was sidelined, and the Chargers were relying on a 38-year-old tight end as a desperate fill-in. Antonio Gates did not dominate in the red zone. That left a sizable hold for Williams to work within.
Now, here are Henry's 2016-17 averages in the red zone: 14.5 targets, 8 receptions, 5.5 TDs, 53.19% catch rate, and a 16.7% target share. And folks, Henry is fully rested and recovered from that ACL injury. It's safe to say he picks up pretty much where he left off.
Here's another rough stat for Whisenhunt's No. 2 receivers: They've averaged just 6 TDs over the last 3 seasons, and that includes Williams' double digit scores from 2018. Now, I think we can all agree Mike Williams is a bigger red zone threat than Dontrelle Inman or Tyrell Williams. So maybe that average doesn't represent what we should expect going forward.
Still, can Williams and Henry find a way to co-exist as red zone threats? That's the question that will probably decide whether Williams is considered a bust at the end of the 2019 season.
The Arguments In Favor Of A Big Year
I've been pretty negative so far. If you've gotten this far, you deserve to hear something positive about Mike Williams' situation. So here we go.
The common argument in favor of Mike Williams seems to boil down to two things, 1) "If he did that much with so few opportunities, imagine what he can with Tyrell Williams out of the way!" And 2) "This is going to be his third-year breakout!"
But those assuming Mike simply absorbs the departed Williams' vacated target share need to re-evaluate how the Chargers spread the ball around. It's much more likely Travis Benjamin slides into the hole left by Tyrell and scoops up his targets (and touchdowns) in the process. The last time Benjamin was the WR3 (in 2017) he saw 62 targets. That's just the way the Chargers like to do things.
Okay...that wasn't very positive, either. So let me try again.
The third-year breakout is one of fantasy football's most beautiful tropes. It hinges on the fact that transitioning from college to the the pros is often difficult, and it takes receivers a little while to catch up to the speed of the NFL. And it's entirely possible Williams takes that step forward in his third year and becomes an even better player than he was in 2018. That could mean he defies regression and somehow becomes more efficient.
But there has to be an opportunity for him to do so. Can he eat into Keenan Allen's workload a little because he's just that talented? Absolutely. He could. But unless he actually surpasses Allen as the Chargers' WR1, you still may not like how his season ends up.
...Dammit. I did it again.
Mike Williams' 2019 Projection
Attention all anti-math, people. You may want to brace yourselves, because we're about to dig deeper into some numbers.
Using the team's average passing volume (558), historical target share for WR2s (13%, just to be nice), Williams' 2018 catch percentage (65.2%), he would see around 72 targets for 47 receptions.
Keeping him at 15.4 YPR would be incredibly generous, considering the league average hasn't gone above 12.0 YPR since 1998. But just to be fair to Williams' talent, we can leave that number at his ultra-respectable career average of 14.1. On 47 receptions, that's 663 yards.
Now the tough part: the touchdowns. That number, as I suggested before, is bound to come down. But again, in deference to his raw talent, we'll have him leading the team with 8 TDs, the previous high for Whisenhunt's offense over the last decade.
If you're keeping score, that tracks out to 72 targets, 47 receptions, 663 yards, and 8 TDs. In PPR formats, that's 161.3 fantasy points, which would have made him WR36 last year. That's an 11 spot drop from his current ADP of WR25. And that's hoping a lot of things go right.
Do you really want to roll the dice on a player in such a rough situation? If you do, you hold onto those cartoon hearts. Otherwise, heed these warning signs.