Injuries are the worst. Every year, the phrase “next man up” is getting said more often than not.
Let’s go back in time. Going into the 2013 season, the Chargers were set at wide receiver. It was considered one of the strongest position groups on the roster. The team had Danario Alexander, who was signed off the street and finished with 687 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games the year prior, veteran Malcom Floyd and slot specialist Eddie Royal.
Before the season even started, Alexander went down with a torn ACL in training camp. He was lost for the year. In Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles, Floyd suffered a serious neck injury, which ended his year. Royal as your No. 1 receiver? No cornerback is shaking in their boots. A position of strength turned into a position of weakness in a blink of an eye.
But that put in motion what many could not have predicted. Keenan Allen, a 2013 third-round pick, shot up the depth chart–and what a year he had. Allen finished with 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. He was runner-up to Packers running back Eddie Lacy for the Associated Press’ Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Fast forward to 2016. Allen was lost for the year after suffering a torn ACL in Week 1. Prior to the season, veteran Stevie Johnson tore his meniscus in training camp, which also ended his season.
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Déjà Vu all over again? Luckily, the Chargers have a player who’s already stepped up.
Tyrell Williams, 24, was already primed for a somewhat “breakout” season in 2016. Even though he came into the year with two career catches (one that went for an 80-yard TD), he was dominating in training camp and was on the cusp on the No. 3 receiver job even before Johnson got hurt. The hype was real with this one.
With Allen out, offseason acquisition Travis Benjamin is the No. 1 guy on paper, and while he’s proved to be a successful signing (17 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns), he’s a deep threat specialist who will thrive better as a No. 2–a.k.a. the Emmanuel Sanders role.
But with the size-speed combination that Williams possesses, I believe he could develop into a very good receiver, possibly a No. 1–and I’m talking about Williams being that guy this year.
Williams already has 11 catches for 201 yards and one touchdown through three games. He’s been targeted 20 times, second-best to Benjamin and double that of those next in line (Melvin Gordon and Dontrelle Inman have 10 a piece). Williams has contributed in every game so far; it took Allen until Weeks 4-5 (2013) to get going.
Like Allen, Williams is a smooth route-runner. He can fly by you on a crossing pattern or beat you deep. The 6-foot-4 Williams could be that Vincent Jackson-type player that Philip Rivers loved for so many years, regardless of the type of offense the Chargers now run. As long as he can reel in those targets (just a 55 percent catch rate), then he’ll be a major impact player going forward.
It’s going to be tough to replicate what Allen did in his rookie year. The thing is, Allen was a highly-touted prospect going into the draft. He fell to the third round due to injury concerns. Williams was an undrafted free agent out of Westen Oregon (2014). He essentially has a tougher climb to make, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a star.
There are notable undrafted free-agent receivers who shined. Allen Hurns, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, Wayne Chrebet, Rod Smith and even Floyd are some to name. Players like Miles Austin, Nate Washington and Danny Amendola have also made a name for themselves. Having an offensive coordinator like Ken Whisenhunt, who was the OC during Allen’s rookie year, will be a positive factor for Williams.
The Chargers struck gold when signing Antonio Gates as an undrafted free agent in 2003. Maybe Williams will end up being the next undrafted star.