Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers about to cash in after the best performance of his career in 2021

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams made some extra money this season and gained a lot of friends he didn’t necessarily know he had, namely NFL scouts from wide receiver-hungry teams.

Williams, the Chargers’ 2017 first-round pick, is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and, oh yeah, he caught 76 passes for 1,146 yards last season, posting career bests in both categories. Now he’s a free agent and an extremely sought after one at that?

Williams earned a base salary of $15.68 million last season after the Chargers picked up his fifth-year option. Pro Football Focus predicts he could sign a four-year, $68m deal, averaging $17m and $38m in guarantees. Or the Chargers could pay an estimated $18.5 million, according to Spotrac, to designate Williams as a franchise player in 2022 and see how they fare.

Regardless, Williams, who ranks No. 3 on ESPN’s ranking of the best available free agents, is in a great position to add to your bank account.

“I wanted to have a career year,” he said. «That was the important thing for me, to have a career year. Obviously, as a team goal, I wanted to make the playoffs and have a chance to play in the Super Bowl, but we didn’t get there.”

Not that Williams was to blame. He was spectacular at times last season, particularly in Week 11 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Chargers were in trouble, falling 37-34 late in the fourth quarter after blowing a 17-point lead. But quarterback Justin Herbert threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Williams, who created space and took a high step to avoid a tackle before racing into the end zone with 2:09 remaining. Game over, as the Chargers won 41-37 in front of a national television audience on Sunday Night Football.

Williams also had monster games in a Week 3 win over the Kansas City Chiefs (seven catches, 122 yards, two touchdowns) and in a Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns (eight catches, 165 yards, two touchdowns). And, of course, there’s the Week 18 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, in which Williams caught the game-tying 12-yard touchdown pass on the final regulation play to cap a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback in a game the Chargers eventually lost in overtime.

The Chargers, Herbert in particular, took a different look at Williams as the season unfolded. He became a great receiving yards receiver, no longer just a jump-around threat on 50-50 throws.

«The first time I spoke with the coach [Brandon] Staley said that in the past playing against me, they wanted to take the deep pass from me because they noticed I wasn’t catching a lot of short passes,” Williams said. «He said that he wanted to change the script and get me a lot of in-breaks, a lot of slants, a lot of fumes to get the ball in my hands.

“I’m a big-bodied physical receiver, so I feel like I can play with the ball in my hands. Not just a deep threat, but also getting the ball into the immediate box and making plays like that.”

Williams said he has always had the ability to make plays on short and intermediate shots, he just wasn’t asked to do so until last season, when offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi put more on Williams’ plate.

“Not getting a chance to do that kind of thing,” Williams said. “Not even do it in practice, or see if I would be able to do it. But this year, I only had the opportunity to do it. I feel like I’ve shown that I’m capable. That was the main thing for the coaches, their plan was for me to get many more receptions because they have seen that in my career I did not have many receptions.

The Chargers wanted Williams to make the catch and “make things happen after that” instead of relying strictly on his size and ability to jump on contested shots.

It worked. He had 27 more receptions and 145 more yards than his highs from the previous season and, with nine touchdown receptions, was one of his career highs in that category. The shippers’ management took notice.

“Mike is a special player,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “As soon as I got here I knew how talented he was and what he is capable of with 50-50 balls. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the routes he runs and the separation.”

And Williams wants to come back and take advantage of that breakthrough, and not because of the chemistry he has with Herbert.

“I don’t like changes,” Williams said. “I feel like I’ve built some lifelong friendships here with the guys in the organization, on and off the field. I like the organization, the people I come to work with every day.”

Telesco said it would be working to make that happen.

“I went down to the field for the Raiders game in overtime and watched him play in overtime. He gave everything he had… he had nothing left when he got to the end of that game,” Telesco said. “If we had won that game, it would have been a performance that we would have been talking about long after the fact.

“I am grateful that I recruited him and I am grateful that he is here. We’ll find out the future in the future, but he was a big part of this football team this year and he has been in the past as well.”

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Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers about to cash in after the best performance of his career in 2021