After a big season, Mike Williams likely will be franchise tagged by Chargers

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams catches a touchdown pass in front of Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons.
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams catches a touchdown pass in front of Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons on Jan. 2. Williams finished with 1,146 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last season.
(Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

He set personal bests in catches and receiving yards while displaying a previously unseen versatility, one that blossomed under the Chargers’ new coaching staff.

After the season, Mike Williams said his No. 1 individual goal entering 2021 was “to have a career year.” He succeeded.

Seeing how that success translates financially is the next step.

Williams, a pending unrestricted free agent, is one of the NFL’s top candidates to be franchise tagged. The two-week window for tagging players begins Tuesday.


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By doing so, the Chargers would guarantee Williams a one-year deal worth about $19 million and provide both sides additional time to potentially work on a long-term extension.

If the Chargers don’t tag Williams, he would be free to negotiate with any team beginning March 14.

Williams, 27, just established himself like never before as an all-over-the-field threat playing in the system installed by coach Brandon Staley and coordinated by Joe Lombardi.

He finished with 76 receptions, 1,146 yards and nine touchdowns, second on the team to running back Austin Ekeler. Williams’ total of 129 targets was 39 more than his previous best.

“I think Mike proved himself in a big way,” Staley said after the season. “I think what he proved to the league … is that he’s a complete receiver.”

Through Williams’ first four years in the NFL, his ability downfield was emphasized. But his role expanded in 2021 to include a much wider variety of routes and situations.

Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams runs after catching a pass in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams runs after catching a pass in overtime against the Las Vegas Raiders on Jan. 9.
(Jeff Bottari / Associated Press)

Williams might have made his most compelling case regarding his value in the most significant setting: the Chargers’ final game.

Hobbling through injury, he set a career high with nine catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in an inspiring effort as the Chargers lost at Las Vegas 35-32 in overtime to be knocked from playoff contention.

“Seeing Mike Williams in our locker room after that game, that’s the thing that you’re not going to forget …” Staley said. “He didn’t have anything left. The way he played, it’s a performance I’m not going to forget. He was hurting. He went back in that game and he brought us back.”

Deciding what to do with Williams will be one of the first moves in what figures to be an active offseason for the Chargers.

They have ample financial room, putting their cap space at slightly more than $56 million, the third-most in the league after Miami and Jacksonville.


The team is expected to cut veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, which would open more space.

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Along with Williams, the Chargers have eight other pending unrestricted free agents who started at least five games last season. That doesn’t include kicker Dustin Hopkins or returner Andre Roberts.

Staley and general manager Tom Telesco will be looking to upgrade a defense that was too inconsistent and struggled particularly on third down. Notable changes could be coming to all three levels.

This offseason also could include an extension for safety Derwin James Jr., who made his second Pro Bowl and is one of the key pieces — and the signal caller — in Staley’s scheme.

The Chargers have used the franchise tag only twice since 2011. Two years ago, they tagged tight end Hunter Henry. In 2017, they tagged defensive end Melvin Ingram.

Henry played one more season with the team before departing for New England as a free agent. Ingram signed a four-year extension about 3½ months after being tagged.


The Super Bowl champion Rams have 13 unrestricted free agents, including outside linebacker Von Miller and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. But they don’t have any strong candidates for the franchise tag.

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.