Fantasy Football: Are We Forgetting About Mike Williams?

After an injury-plagued 2013 season, will Mike Williams rebound with the Buffalo Bills?

For a player who’s relatively under-the-radar, Mike Williams has had an interesting NFL career. The highs of his tenure have certainly been quite high. He hauled in 11 touchdowns as a rookie fourth-rounder for Tampa Bay, took a small step back during his sophomore year before an impressive third season where he gained 996 yards and scored nine times. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers felt they needed to lock-up Williams, and rewarded his strong play with a six-year, $40.25 million contract that he signed the summer before the 2013 season.

The lows of his career? Well, they’re pretty low as well. Williams averaged a paltry 36 yards-per-game average in the six games he played in 2013 before suffering a torn hamstring that cost him the rest of the season. In March of 2014, Williams was stabbed in the leg by his own brother. This, coupled with the legal troubles he had been having, led the Bucs to realize it was in their best interest to move on without Williams. This past April, they shipped him off to the Buffalo Bills for just a sixth-round pick.

“Bills’ receiving corps” hasn’t exactly been a phrase synonymous with “fantasy production” in recent years. Since 2008, they've had zero receivers not named Steve Johnson reach the 1,000-yard plateau. The Bills are a heavy run-first team, having had more rushing attempts than any other team in the league last season. Add in that E.J. Manuel has looked shaky at best this preseason, and it begs the question of whether there will even be any fantasy-relevant receivers in Buffalo at all.

With that said, Williams looks to have locked up a starting receiving job in Buffalo, and with two top-20 finishes as a receiver in just four NFL seasons, he’s a player that is absolutely worth analyzing. Can he overcome the deficiencies in the Bills’ passing game and become a worthwhile asset in redraft leagues? Let’s get into it.

A Roller Coaster Career

By looking at Williams' numbers through numberFire’s signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, it becomes clear just how up-and-down career has truly been. For those newer to numberFire, NEP is a measure of how many expected points a player is adding to his teams total through his on-field performance (see more on NEP in our glossary).

Below is a table showing how Williams performed in Reception NEP, Target NEP, and Reception NEP per target in each of his first four years in the league:

Reception NEPTarget NEPReception NEP/Target
201081.02 (17th)25.22 (35th)0.63
201159.67 (40th)6.15 (88th)0.48
201289.17 (20th)28.87 (37th)0.71

The way he managed to produce as a rookie is nothing short of extremely impressive. To be amongst the top 20 receivers in Reception NEP - a measure of points added on all catches - is an accomplishment in any season, let alone as a rookie fourth-rounder. His efficiency on a per target basis was nothing superb, as his catch rate of 51.2% was below average, but as a rookie it’s hardly anything to complain about.

He took a sizable step back in 2011. His Reception NEP fell to a more mediocre, yet still respectable, mark, but his efficiency fell down to the dumps. His catch rate marginally improved to 52.4%, and with his touchdown total decreasing from 11 down to 3, his numbers were bound to drop across the board. Some of his poor performance can be chalked up to the quarterbacking in Tampa Bay, as the team finished ninth in the league in Adjusted Passing NEP (adjusted for strength of schedule) in 2010, but dropped to 25th the year following.

His 2012 season helped quell the concerns arising from his poor 2011 showing, as he posted arguably his best year to date. While his rankings in Reception NEP and Target NEP came in at slightly lower than they were in 2010, he still put up career high marks in both of those categories. Where he made a meaningful step forward was in efficiency. His catch rate remained low at 49.6%, but he still finished as the 18th most efficient receiver on a per target basis among players with 100-plus targets (he had 127).

While things were looking up for Williams, his 2013 campaign was a disaster. The whole team was in a state of disarray thanks to the mess that was Greg Schiano’s tenure as the Bucs’ head coach, but much more was expected out of Williams after he was given a hefty contract extension. He wasn’t exactly an early-round pick in fantasy drafts last offseason, but owners were spending roughly an eighth-round selection for Williams on average. Before getting hurt, he was performing at a career low level with the red flag of his efficiency rearing its head once more.

Buffalo (Re)Bound

The pertinent question is whether Williams’ journey to Buffalo will revitalize his career, or if his 2013 is truly indicative of the player he is.

The Bills were 31st as a team in Adjusted Passing NEP last season, and they had just the 24th-most passing attempts. Of the quarterbacks that threw passes last season, only Geno Smith and Blaine Gabbert managed a worse Passing NEP than E.J. Manuel’s -47.84. That’s right, Manuel literally managed to perform nearly six touchdowns below average over the 10 games he played. Buffalo doesn’t exactly sound like a haven for receiving production, does it?

But just because an offense is bad doesn’t mean nobody can produce within it. What Williams can provide that many of his fellow receivers in Buffalo can’t is a strong red-zone presence. In his three healthy seasons in the NFL, he’s averaged 12.67 red zone targets per season. Throw away the 2011 season in which he bafflingly saw one red zone target, and his career average stands at 18.5. Manuel has previously said Williams is a guy the team is going to focus on in the red zone, too. Seeing as he’s the biggest receiver on a team almost entirely devoid of serious red zone threats, Williams could easily lead the team in touchdown receptions. His red zone strength was flashed when he scored a 14-yard touchdown in the Bills’ third preseason game.

Normally, I advise against drafting touchdown-dependent players. With Williams, however, it’s a bit difference for two reasons. One, he actually should be presented with relatively consistent chances to score touchdowns. And secondly, he's not being drafted high. He’s the 72nd receiver taken on average in ESPN leagues and has an ADP of 217.35 in MyFantasyLeague drafts. While he could have a season a la 2011 or 2013, his downside is completely mitigated by his minuscule draft-day cost.