The No. 7 overall pick from the 2017 NFL draft produced just 11 catches in his rookie season. The pressure is now on Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams as he enters his sophomore season with a clean bill of health and expectations for a bigger role. Is he ready?
To understand the breakout potential Williams brings to the table, you have to go back to his sophomore season at Clemson. That year, 2014, saw Williams establish himself as arguably the best receiver in the nation after catching 57 passes for 1,030 yards and six touchdowns as he and first-year starter Deshaun Watson established a connection after Cole Stoudt left the starting lineup.
Williams, a 6'4", 220-pound athlete, looked like a future top-10 pick heading into his junior season and ranked as my No. 1 receiver in the upcoming (2016) draft class. Then the injury happened.
On the first drive of the first game of 2015, Williams caught a touchdown pass from Watson but collided with the goal post. The collision resulted in a fractured bone in his neck and a lost season. Williams fought back through rehab and, according to the coaching staff at the time, was cleared to play in the team's bowl game that year but wanted to keep his redshirt status and decided to wait until the 2016 season to return.
The reviews from summer practice were glowing as Williams made his return to the loaded Clemson offense; once again, he entered the season as the top-ranked receiver in the class—the first time that's happened in my years covering the draft. He didn't disappoint as he led Clemson to a national championship with 98 catches, 1,361 yards, 11 touchdowns and one dominant performance against Alabama in which he was the best player on the field.
That promise led the Chargers to make Williams the second wide receiver to come off the board in the 2017 class. Then, another injury happened.
Williams missed OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and training camp with a herniated disk in his lower back. The injury cost him the first five games of the season, but upon returning to the lineup, he started to show the promise that made him a Top 10 selection. Then, another injury happened.
A knee injury suffered in a win over the Dallas Cowboys kept Williams out for one remaining game (against the Cleveland Browns in Week 13) and virtually signaled a lost year. Now, as the Chargers and Williams prepare for 2018, they need him healthy to make plays.
Tight end Hunter Henry's season-ending knee injury opens the door for Williams to become Philip Rivers' No. 2 target (behind Keenan Allen), a role team officials told us they expect Williams to fill. Said one scouting staff source, "He's looking good. Fast, explosive, making great catches in traffic." If Williams is back to his pre-injury status, the Chargers could feature a dominant duo at receiver.
The front office and coaching staff have to hope so. As Anthony Lynn heads into his second season as head coach, he fields a team with a defense that can hold opponents to low scores; this offense doesn't have to score 40 points per game. But if Rivers and Co. can stay healthy, it could be the best offense in the AFC West. That makes this a dangerous group to play in a wide-open division.
The old scouting rule was that you wait three years before putting the "bust" label on a player. Those days are gone with the expectation that players step in and perform right away. Even at a position like wide receiver, where impact from a rookie is rare, Williams has to show he can stay healthy and make plays above and beyond the 11 catches he turned in last season. If he can't, the bust label will be applied and the blame will be on everyone in the Chargers organization for the selection of a player in the Top 10 who isn't contributing. The potential is there, though, for Williams to emerge as a top young receiver.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.