If Mike Williams Is Sidelined for the Chargers, What’s the Fantasy Football Impact?
Just what the Los Angeles Chargers needed: another injured wide receiver.
The Chargers selected Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. The move surprised some, but it made sense when you consider the team’s oft-injured corps of wide receivers. Plus, with quarterback Philip Rivers heading into the final years of his career, the team probably wants to maximize the time they have left with their franchise passer, and giving him more weapons is one way to try doing that.
But Williams suffered a back injury in the very first practice this offseason, wasting no time in continuing the trend of injured Chargers receivers.
The seriousness of Williams’ back injury is uncertain, but a report from Ian Rapoport of NFL Network indicates it is likely Williams will miss some of his rookie season. Time will tell how it all plays out, but the fallout from this injury will have relevance this year for fantasy owners, trickling down through multiple players on the team.
Let's break down the effects of that injury on each of the team's prominent pass catchers.
There’s no better place to start than with the victim himself.
In redraft leagues, not too much was expected of Williams even before the injury news, but since word of his back ailment broke, his average draft position (ADP) in standard 12-team leagues -- per Fantasy Football Calculator -- has dropped drastically.
The ninth pick of the 10th round in early July, Williams' value is cratering, as you'd expect.
Time will tell where exactly his ADP slide comes to a rest, but if he does return from his injury during the season and is able to carve out a role on the Chargers’ offense, you might be able to pick him up off of your league’s waiver wire.
The more intriguing question right now is his value in dynasty leagues. Anyone who drafted him in rookie drafts this year likely used a high pick in order to do so (much like the Chargers). It certainly doesn’t feel good to see your first-round pick lose value so soon after the draft, but Williams' owners in dynasty leagues shouldn’t panic yet as they, for obvious reasons, can afford to play the long game with him.
Keenan Allen is the Chargers’ top wideout, but he has remained a divisive fantasy asset due to his history of missing time with injuries. Last year, Allen tore his ACL in the first game of the season and sat the remaining 15 contests. In 2015, Allen was absent the last eight games with a lacerated kidney. In 2014, he missed the final two games with a fractured clavicle.
Injuries have haunted Allen throughout his career, and as a result, some in the fantasy community are hesitant to jump on him, which is perfectly understandable.
Considering that lengthy injury history, it tells you how talented Allen is that we are still talking about him at all -- and that he's being selected as WR20 on average.
That's because what we have seen from a healthy Allen is very impressive.
He and Rivers have an established on-field connection that produced 6 receptions for 63 yards in the one full quarter Allen played last year. Allen has logged an average of 5.81 receptions and 68.9 yards per contest in his career, and he has the potential to post monster games, such as his 12-reception, 133-yard and 2-touchdown outing against the Minnesota Vikings in 2015.
Allen is a risky fantasy asset because of his injuries, but if he can stay healthy, he could be a stud.
When it comes to Williams' injury, Allen is probably the receiver on the Chargers who is the least affected by the news. Williams was unlikely to supplant Allen as Rivers’ preferred target in his rookie year, so Allen’s lead-dog status is safe going into this season.
Ostensibly, Tyrell Williams is the player who stands to gain the most from this injury.
Tyrell was a fantasy-favorite last season, emerging from complete obscurity in the wake of injuries to Allen and Travis Benjamin to finish as the WR13 in standard leagues. His impressive play is part of the reason the Mike Williams draft pick shocked so many. It felt like a slap to the face for the Tyrell truthers.
Thing is, Tyrell was really good last year. Per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric -- which uses historical down-and-distance data to project the expected points for each play of the game, and then the value that player adds to the drive above or below expectation -- the guy was one of the NFL's better wideouts in 2016.
Among receivers with at least 80 targets, he was 12th in Reception NEP and 14th in Reception NEP per target, finishing with 1,059 yards and 7 touchdowns on 69 catches.
He was, however, pretty reliant on big plays. We can see that via his Reception Success Rate, which is the percentage of his catches that positively impacted NEP. Among the same subset of receivers with at least 80 targets -- a group of 60 wideouts -- Tyrell's 81.16% Success Rate ranked 43rd.
That doesn't sound good, but it's not so bad when you consider that Dontrelle Inman (82.76%) and Benjamin (82.98%), the team's other two wideouts who saw significant targets, fared similarly in terms of Success Rate.
With the first-round pick of Mike Williams, Tyrell's role was definitely thrust up in the air, but now, with Mike on the shelf, Tyrell has a much better chance of remaining fantasy relevant, even if Allen plays all 16 games (which has proven to be a big if).
In a not-that-surprising development, Tyrell's ADP has shot upwards, climbing more than a full round since the news of Williams' injury.
Rivers has thrown for over 4,000 yards in 8 of his 11 seasons as a starter, and he's shown he can sustain multiple fantasy-relevant assets. Tyrell likely won’t reach the same heights he did last year if he's playing second fiddle to Allen, but he should still be a viable fantasy option. He's a young receiver with room for growth, and as he showed in 2016, he can shine when given a window of opportunity.
Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman
Travis Benjamin and Inman looked destined to be the least fantasy-relevant wideouts on the Chargers before the injury news, and they should continue to be weak options for fantasy teams for as long as Allen and Tyrell are healthy.
We don't know which player will step into the role of the third wideout, but whomever it is, the slight bump he will see as a result of Williams’ injury probably won’t be enough to turn him into a starter in season-long leagues.
Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry
Rivers loves going to his tight ends, especially in the red zone.
Antonio Gates has caught 86 touchdowns from Rivers, an average of 7.81 per season. While Gates was out for two games last year (and was officially not a starter in an additional five), we saw the rookie breakout of Hunter Henry, who tied Cameron Brate for the lead in receiving touchdowns among tight ends.
Some, like ESPN's Mike Clay, expect Williams to see some usage in the end zone, presumably due to his height (6'4") and the draft capital invested in him, but if he's out of the picture, we can more easily rely upon Gates and Henry to dominate the team in red zone receiving opportunities.
Considering how rookie tight ends typically struggle transitioning to the pros, the fact Henry excelled a year ago, finishing second in Reception NEP per target among the tight ends to see at least 40 looks, is very promising for his future.
More than anything, Mike Williams’ back injury should be a boost to Tyrell Williams’ snaps and targets, and the market is adjusting accordingly.
Inman and Benjamin don't figure to get a big lift, but injuries to Allen or Tyrell could thrust them into the spotlight. Gates and Henry should continue to pile up red zone looks, and they'll likely get a slight bump in usage if Mike is sidelined deep into the campaign.
As for Mike Williams himself -- he was unlikely to be a fantasy asset in his rookie year and missing valuable offseason time has cast a shadow of doubt over his value in both re-draft and dynasty leagues. If Williams does return from his injury this season, don't expect immediate production from him in 2017.