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The Lightning Strike: Mike Williams still productive through progressive season

Los Angeles Chargers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Where were you when the Los Angeles Chargers were on the clock in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft? Were you glued to your seat in front of the television? Were you at church praying for the Bolts not to screw up the seventh overall pick? Were you standing in front of Qualcomm Stadium, cursing at management for selling their soul and moving up north to a town known for sin and seduction?

It doesn’t really matter where you were, to be frank. What matters is how you felt when GM Tom Telesco had the perfect opportunity to replace a future Hall of Fame safety with perhaps the rangiest defensive back in recent years.

When former-Ohio State free safety Malik Hooker declared for the 2017 NFL Draft, many around the NFL thought he would be the perfect long-term replacement for Eric Weddle. The team optioned to let the then four-time Pro Bowl standout walk following the 2016 season. After his stellar nine year career out in San Diego, culminating with 19 career interceptions, 6 1/2 career sacks and consistent tackling style, the then 31-year-old safety felt betrayed by the team at the end of the 2015 NFL season.

Hooker was known for terrific speed, excellent range in coverage, and the ability to be a ball-hawking safety at the next level. While he would need work on his tackling skills, the sniper safety was a perfect fit for Gus Bradley’s 4-3 defense.

Six teams passed on Hooker to address needs at pass rush and in the run game. The Chargers were on the clock and many waited to hear Hooker’s name called. Jerseys were being made, fans were eagerly waiting to welcome him out west and many couldn’t believe that the All-American was still on the board.

But Telesco called an audible at the last second. Instead of finding a replacement in the Bolts secondary, he elected to find a secondary receiver for Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense. As former Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams answered the phone to be welcomed to the organization, his selection was greeted with a mix of both cheers and boos.

Heading into the midway point of his second season, it’s safe to say that while there’s plenty more for the young receiver to learn, he’s gained a following of members from the Chargers fan base respecting his role in Los Angeles’ offense.

Following yet another solid performance during the Bolts’ 25-19 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon, Williams is thriving in his role with the team. Granted, while his reception count isn’t as high as perhaps many around the fan base would like, each snap has proven to show growth in the 24-year-old receivers progression.

Williams finished Sunday’s game with just one catch. It came off a beautifully ran comeback route against Seahawks cornerback Tre Flowers. Using his 6-4, 226 pound frame, the former Tiger receiver showed excellent strength and balance down the sideline as he tiptoed in for a 30-yard touchdown.

”It was really good [to see him get into the end zone],” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “That was a heck of a play. He’s a play-maker. We try to get the ball in his hands as much as we can, but we only have one football. He took advantage of his opportunities.”

Some people would like to critique that he was out of bounds. Upon further review, the referees disagreed with the call. Williams scored his fifth touchdown of the season and helped the Bolts pick up their fifth consecutive victory.

Even Williams knew that the touchdown wasn’t going to be changed following his efforts.

“I don’t practice that play, but I do work on my calves, and my calves probably helped me out a bit,” Williams said via LA Times. “I watched the replay. The last one they had up there, I thought I was out. But my heel never touched, though. They couldn’t overturn it.”

Another score for Williams shows his growth as the team’s boundary receiving target. Yes, while Hooker flourished as a rookie for the Indianapolis Colts, his second season has been less than stellar thus far. Through eight games the ball-hawking safety has only collected 27 total tackles, two pass deflections and just one interception.

While Williams has shown growth as player this season, there’s still plenty for him to fix before he becomes an elite receiver in the league. His routes can be poor at times in man coverage while his drop rate is currently at 6.2%. With a pair of drops on the season from solid throws, plays like that are hard to ignore.

Through eight games this season, Williams has been targeted 32 times and only hauled in 18 receptions. Some balls have been overthrown but part of the issue is his ability to create separation. Known for his ability to win against contested catches, the second-year receiver is struggling to find ways to get open against man coverage and make an impact for the Bolts outside the red zone.

But his numbers aren’t horrendous for a player who was limited to 11 catches during his injured plagued rookie season. Along with his 18 receptions, Williams has collected 338 receiving yards and is averaging 18.8 yards per catch. That currently places him 5th among actives receivers in the YAC category.

So Williams is still learning. That’s part of the game for young players no matter the position. With injuries knocking them off their path, it might even take longer. But the contributions the young receiver has made this season are part of the reason why Los Angeles is currently one of the more quality offense in the league this season.

“Last year, he wasn’t healthy and he didn’t practice a lot, so he was kind of learning on the run,” Lynn said. “This year, he’s more comfortable. He hadn’t missed many practices this year, so, he’s been really consistent. I think his confidence right now is at an all-time high. He’s looking good.”

Maybe Telesco and the Chargers fans will be disappointed that their top-10 pick isn’t turning into a top-10 wide out this season. Maybe he never will be that “elite” receiver so many thought he could be coming out of school.

As a vertical threat in the red zone, Williams has the ability to make teams regret playing single coverage on him. His lower body power and agility has allowed the young receiver to make some pretty acrobatic catches this season.

With Keenan Allen playing the role of possession receiver and Tyrell Williams showing off quality speed as a potential deep threat, Williams should continue to carve out a role as the team’s reliable boundary receiver. In the red zone, hopefully Rivers can find a perfect match-up and let his receiver show the league his ability to win with his strengths.

Production is key to stay in the league and Williams has shown an immense amount of it this season. He might not be an elite fantasy option but overall, let’s give credit to the receiver’s growth in year 2 of his potential stellar career.