Last season, Chris Godwin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers emerged in year three to catch 86 passes for 1,333 yards and nine touchdowns in only 14 games. The 2017 third round pick had a couple of good performances in 2018 but also quite a few underwhelming ones as the Bucs were yet to rid themselves of a Dirk Koetter offense.
With Bruce Arians letting Jameis Winston to go for broke as much as his heart desired last season, Godwin crossed the 120-yard mark in four of his first six games and caught six touchdowns. He was averaging 110 yards per game, 15.4 yards per catch, 12.26 yards per target, and he caught just under 80-percent of throws his way — not easy to do when you play with Winston.
Even in Godwin’s final eight games, when he failed to top 90 yards five times and only caught three touchdowns, he was on a pace of 1,342 yards from those contests. At 24 and entering his fourth season, few deny Godwin’s value.
Another 6’1 receiver finding a bit more of his groove last season was Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons. Though Ridley’s targets, catches, yards, yards per target were all similar from his rookie campaign, he did so in three fewer games and the recent first rounder had 395 yards and three touchdowns in the Falcons last four games, which would’ve paced him up to 108 catches and 1,580 yards in a 16-game season.
Ridley has not topped 900 yards in a season yet but he’s caught nearly 70-percent of his targets from Matt Ryan and averaged 9.22 yards per target with 17 touchdowns in his last 28 games. Teammate Julio Jones gets the bulk of the targets and the attention but has caught an identical 17 touchdowns in the last three seasons, a total of 47 games.
In 2019, FootballOutsiders calculated that Chris Godwin and Calvin Ridley ranked first and second in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) because on a play-to-play basis, they were coming up with the most valuable moments, whether that was a first down or a touchdown.
Tyrell Williams ranked third in DVOA.
Williams, undrafted out of Western Oregon in 2015, emerged in his second season with the San Diego Chargers when he was targeted 119 times after Keenan Allen tore his ACL, catching 69 passes for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns. The team responded by drafting Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick, pushing Williams back into the number three role temporarily.
Chargers WR Tyrell Williams was the second most productive player from the slot in 2016. pic.twitter.com/VnZ9OmmXiX— PFF (@PFF) June 26, 2017
Mike Williams struggled to make an impact as a rookie, but Hunter Henry, Melvin Gordon, Travis Benjamin, and Antonio Gates ate up plenty of attention. Tyrell Williams dropped to 69 targets, catching 43 passes for 728 yards and four touchdowns, exceeding expectations again.
The two seasons following have been exceptionally consistent, even as Williams changed QBs and offensive systems between the LA Chargers and the Oakland Raiders:
2018 - 41 catches, 653 yards, five touchdowns
2019 - 42 catches, 651 yards, six touchdowns
From a volume perspective, the numbers are underwhelming to an audience spoiled by deep bombs in meaningless games by bad quarterbacks trailing by huge margins. And the disappointment probably exacerbated by a public more obsessed with their fantasy teams than seeing their favorite teams make the actual playoffs. From a volume standpoint, Williams is limited.
And limited is no doubt limiting.
Teams haven’t carried the expectation to consistently give Williams 100 or more targets per year and that may plague him until he retires. But on a play-to-play basis, few receivers have been more valuable when they are targeted in the last four seasons.
Since 2016, on a minimum of 300 targets, Tyrell Williams — yes Tyrell Williams — ranks fourth in yards per target behind only Tyler Lockett, Tyreek Hill, and Julio Jones. He sits ahead of Brandin Cooks, George Kittle, Adam Thielen, and T.Y. Hilton rounding out the top eight. Though his 317 targets barely crack the threshold and is far outpaced by Jones (604) or even Hill (414) and Cooks (420), it is the same as Lockett (317) and more than Kittle (306).
Tyler Lockett, who has been ranked 98th and 65th on the two more recent NFL Top 100s, and who plays with Russell Wilson, from 2016-2019:
63 games, 317 targets, 225 catches, 3,174 yards, 21 TD, 14.1 Y/C, 10 Y/T, 71-percent catch rate
Tyrell Williams, who has played with Philip Rivers and Derek Carr, from 2016-2019:
62 games, 317 targets, 195 catches, 3,091 yards, 22 TD, 15.9 Y/C, 9.8 Y/T, 61.5-percent catch rate
Williams was also recently ranked by one place as the third-best deep ball threat in the NFL after only Mike Williams and Tyreek Hill, two names already mentioned here. But others talk about using Williams as a trade chip, perceiving perhaps that the Raiders have some “luxury” at the position after drafting Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards. That makes even less sense than assuming Williams wouldn’t have been better than Mike in 2017 when he was a hell of a lot more valuable than Mike.
A number of notable rookie receivers pounced onto the league last season, including A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin, but this has not been the norm and I’m not going to do the very NFL fan thing and pretend that a sample size of one year is enough to think the league has changed that much. Especially given the 2020 offseason and the uncertainty of the regular season. But even absent that, it wouldn’t make much sense to expect Ruggs and Edwards to emerge as number one, or even number two, receivers.
The last first round rookie to top 1,000 yards was Amari Cooper in 2015, when he barely got over it with 1,070 yards in 16 games. Only four other first round rookies topped 1,000 yards in the previous decade, including Odell Beckham, AJ Green, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin. It also doesn’t seem to matter if you were drafted in the top-10 or the bottom-10.
Green and Cooper were early picks, but so were Corey Davis, Justin Blackmon, Mike Williams, Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, Kevin White, Tavon Austin, and John Ross. Watkins and Blackmon accumulated yards but had awful catch rates and yards per target. They were not valuable.
As you should imagine, third round rookies do even worse.
Keenan Allen is the only third round receiver in the 2010s to top 1,000 yards as a rookie. McLaurin is second at 919. Cooper Kupp and TY Hilton, the only others to top 800 yards. Terrance Williams, the only other to top 700 yards.
To expect Edwards to be a 1-in-40, or 1-in-20, or even 1-in-10 type of third round rookie is not to be giving him many opportunities for failure. Same for Ruggs. And all players need to be given proper time to fail. We saw it happen with Mike Williams in 2017, even as Chargers fans were thinking to write off the more limited Tyrell Williams that same year.
Now you have to wonder what the difference between them really was or continues to be.
Williams can go in any direction at this stage in his career, whether than’s up, down, or straight ahead at another 40-catch campaign, but up is certainly possible. I believe Jon Gruden is going to be looking for Derek Carr to to lean on Josh Jacobs plenty, to trust Darren Waller first, and to feed Hunter Renfrow in order to move the chains, all while integrating the young players slowly. Within that there is plenty of room for Tyrell Williams.
The only place he really can’t move up far is the DVOA rankings. And value is pretty ... valuable.