Los Angeles Chargers' Mike Williams about to cash in after career-best performance in 2021

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

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

Williams made 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, $68 million deal, with a $17 million average and $38 million 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 it goes.

In any case, Williams, who is rated No. 3 in ESPN's ranking of the top available free agents, is in a great position to add to his bank account.

"I wanted to have a career year," he said. "That was the 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 fell short of that."

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

The Chargers were in trouble, falling behind 37-34 late in the fourth quarter after squandering a 17-point lead. But quarterback Justin Herbert launched a 53-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Williams, who created space and high-stepped to evade a tackle before running to the end zone with 2:09 left. 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 receptions, 122 yards, two touchdowns) and in a Week 5 victory 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 last play of regulation to cap a 15-point fourth-quarter comeback in a game the Chargers eventually lost in overtime.

The Chargers, Herbert in particular, looked at Williams with different eyes as the season unfolded. He became a great yards-after-catch receiver, no longer just a jump-ball threat on 50-50 throws.

"The first time that I talked to Coach [Brandon] Staley he was saying how in the past playing against me, they wanted to take the deep ball away because they noticed I wasn't catching many short passes," Williams said. "He said that he wanted to flip the script and get me a lot of in-breaks, a lot of slants, a lot of smokes to get the ball in my hands.

"I'm a big-body, physical receiver, so I feel like I can play with the ball in my hands. Not just a deep threat, but get the ball in the immediate area and make plays like that."

Williams said he's always had the ability to make plays on short and intermediate throws, he just wasn't asked to until this past season, as offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi put more on Williams' plate.

"Not getting the chance to do those types of things," Williams said. "not even doing it in practice, or seeing if I would be able to do it. But this year, just getting the opportunity to do it. I feel like I've shown that I'm capable. That was the main thing of the coaches, their plan was for me to get a lot more catches because they've seen that in my career I didn't have a lot of catches."

The Chargers wanted Williams to make the catch and "make things happen after that" rather than strictly relying on his size and jumping ability on contested throws.

It worked. He had 27 more receptions and 145 more yards than his previous season highs and, with nine touchdown receptions, was one off his career high in that category. Chargers management took notice.

"Mike's a special player," Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. "I knew as soon as I got here how gifted he was and what he's able to do with the 50-50 balls. I don't think he gets enough credit for the routes that he runs and the separation."

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

"I don't like changes," Williams said. "I feel like I have built some lifelong friendships here with the guys in the organization, on and off the field. I like the organization, the people that I come to work with every day."

Telesco said he would be working on making that happen.

"I came down to the field for the Raiders game in overtime and watching him play in overtime. He gave everything he had ... he had nothing left by the time it got to the end of that game," Telesco said. "If we had won that game, it would have been a performance that we would've been talking about well after the fact.

"I'm thankful that we drafted him and I'm thankful that he's here. We'll figure out the future moving forwards, but he was a big part of this football team this year and has been in the past as well."