Way back in 2010, Mike Williams set the Tampa Bay single-season receiving TDs record with 11. That may not seem like too impressive of a number - Dwayne Bowe had 15 that year while Calvin Johnson and Greg Jennings had 12 - but for Tampa it was everything. Young QB Josh Freeman had his main target of the future and all was right with the world.
And then 2011 happened. 771 yards and 3 TDs in 16 games later, those warm fuzzies had all but disappeared. The following offseason, the Bucs would acquire Vincent Jackson, and the former Toast of Tampa was seemingly relegated to second-string cleanup duty on a team that wasn't particularly efficient throwing the ball anyway.
18 months later, that still seems to be the general consensus from Fantasy Land. Mike Williams currently holds an average draft position of No. 92 overall, right in between Danario Alexander and Kenny Britt in the realm of receivers. At best, he's being selected in the early 10th round.
Umm... did nobody actually watch the 2012 Buccanneers? No? I can't say I blame you, but there's probably a few things you should know about Mike Williams' fantasy prospects heading into this season before you completely write him off as a starting-caliber receiver.
Those Sweet Targets
In his first season with the Bucs, Vincent Jackson dominated the competition. He gained his Bucs team 0.91 net expected points (NEP) per time he was targeted, the second-highest rate in the NFL among receivers targeted 100 times behind Lance Moore. He also tied Jason Witten for the ninth-most targets in the entire NFL with 147. 26 percent of all Tampa's throws went Jackson's way.
But here's a little secret that most people don't realize: Mike Williams received almost as many looks. His 126 targets ranked 23rd in the NFL last season, ahead of supposed breakout players like Torrey Smith (110), Anquan Boldin (112), and Eric Decker (122). Receiving 22.2 percent of Tampa's total throws, Jackson finished third among players with the second-most targets on their team. Only Marques Colston's 130 and Julio Jones' 128 outpaced Mike Williams among second options.
That's saying something, especially considering the Bucs weren't chucking the ball around every down like the Saints or Falcons. Tampa finished just 13th in total pass attempts in 2012 with 566. Although they were slightly lower ranked in rush attempts, 18th with 416, Tampa was still just slightly above the NFL average in throwing the ball 57.6 percent of the time. Tampa really did have enough looks to go around, as long as they were spread to Jackson and Williams almost exclusively.
Williams has been extraordinarily consistent with how many looks he's gotten - he's been between 124 and 127 targets in each of his past three NFL seasons. Statistically, that's a solid trend. It's reasonable to expect him to finish in the late part of the Top 25 in targets once again with right around 125 looks.
Catch Rate Isn't Everything
The other main knock on Mike Williams is that he has the catching ability of a T-Rex on LSD. I'm not going to argue, because holding a career high catch rate of 53 percent from the 2011 season doesn't exactly endear me to your cause. Williams caught just 50 percent of the balls thrown his way last season.
But what if, and stick with me now, catch rate really didn't matter? There are two main parts to every equation: it's not only how many balls you catch, but what you do with the balls you catch. We measure the latter through net expected points, or NEP. Simply put, it's how many expected points a player's contribution has added or subtracted from what a league-average play would give them. Add up each net contribution, and you find a player's average.
Vincent Jackson's catch rate was actually worse than Williams' last season, but as I mentioned, he was able to be successful through a very high 0.91 NEP per target rate. Williams just wasn't as efficient, as he finished with just 0.71 NEP per target. That ranked 20th of the 48 players with 100 targets last season. It's a solid number, but not spectacular.
However, much of that is due to sunk costs with the targets he couldn't reel in. Looking exclusively at NEP per catch rather than per target tells a different story. Vincent Jackson gained a staggering 1.86 expected points per reception last season, easily the best among the 48 players with 100 targets. Two deep threats, Cecil Shorts and Torrey Smith, were tied for second at 1.58. The fourth place slot? Well, that belongs to our man Williams, who gained the Bucs 1.42 expected points per reception last year. He may have only caught half his targets, but when he caught them, he could be deadly.
Not that it's much a surprise that he'd have a high NEP/catch rate, mind you. That's what happens when you have a high risk, high reward offensive gameplan like the Bucs have implemented. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, Josh Freeman threw the fourth-highest proportion of his passes beyond 15 yards in the league with 25.6 percent being qualified as "deep". Only Cutler, Kaepernick, and Luck threw more during the regular season. Unsurprisingly, Williams in turn had the ninth-highest deep percentage among qualified NFL receivers at 37.3 percent of his total passes.
Having a low catch rate hurts, but it doesn't hurt as badly as you'd think. Think of Mike Williams more as a deep threat, even as he also gives you red zone touchdown totals to boot. That's a helpful target.
So What Can We Expect?
Well, to answer the question highlighted in yellow up there, a lot more than a tenth-round value. Even though he's not likely to grab as many receptions as a Dwayne Bowe, Pierre Garcon, or Danny Amendola, Mike Williams is a solid bet to do even more with the ones he does get.
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Assuming a 50 percent catch rate again, that's a reasonable 126 targets for Williams. That's also fewer TDs than he caught in either 2010 or 2012 (although much more than his outlier 2011). Those numbers seem highly likely, yet given the projected numbers for other receivers, slots him on our draft board way above ADP.
As currently constituted (before adjusting for Percy Harvin's injury), Mike Williams is the 20th best receiver on our board and slots in at No. 68 overall. That's a seventh-round talent, much higher than the No. 37 WR and No. 92 overall slot his current ADP has him sitting. He's a home run hitter, and especially against weaker pass defenses (like, oh, most of the NFC South), he could loom large. Especially if he's your third receiver, Mike Williams is certainly worth the risk.