Sans dreadlocks, Chargers' Mike Williams looking to step up in contract year

If early returns are any indication, Mike Williams will be targeted more this season than he has in his career to date. Rob Carr/Getty Images

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Ever since he arrived at Clemson as an incoming freshman in 2013, Los Angeles Chargers receiver Mike Williams had been known by his long, beautiful, flowing dreadlocks. At least until this season, when he arrived at training camp and then cut them off, he said, "because my mom said I wouldn't do it."

Shorn short, Williams had a good training camp, and then this happened in the season opener:

  • He was targeted 12 times, his highest total since Oct. 6, 2019 and second-highest of his five-year career.

  • He had a career-high eight receptions for 82 yards.

  • He scored the winning touchdown on a 3-yard reception early in the fourth quarter to help the Chargers to a 20-16 victory over Washington.

Is he faster, jumping higher, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound?

Did cutting the dreadlocks do it?

Maybe, but more so, it was Chargers coach Brandon Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi using Williams as the X-receiver and putting him into a better position to make plays. And quarterback Justin Herbert making a point to throw to him.

"He's an incredible receiver," Herbert said. "He's one of those guys that goes up and 50/50 balls are more like 75/25."

"It was fun," Williams said. "For me as a receiver, you want to get the ball, you want to make plays for your team. It felt good to have the ball in my hands making plays. We have to continue to keep it rolling."

At 6-foot-5, Williams is a target you can see, if not hit with a throw, which the Chargers hope to do more of in their home opener against the Dallas Cowboys (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS). Williams was a high-usage wide receiver at Clemson, where he had 177 catches for 2,727 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Those stats include a 2015 season in which he played in one game because he broke a bone in his neck after colliding with the goal post after a touchdown catch on the first series of the season opener. He came back to have a monster season in 2016, catching 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Chargers then made him the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft.

Since then he's been an up-and-down performer for the Chargers whose best year yardage-wise was in 2019, where he caught 49 passes for 1,001 yards, a year after hauling in 10 touchdown passes on 43 receptions. Williams had 48 receptions for 756 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

Williams has dealt with his share of injuries, specifically his back, but has continued to produce. His performance against Washington came despite a hip flexor strain and could be a sign of greater things to come.

Even Lombardi predicted it would be a big year for Williams, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season.

"If I was a betting man I'd bet on nice numbers coming from him on the stat sheet," Lombardi said. "As much as this offense will resemble New Orleans, he plays the X and the ball has always kind of found the X receiver in this offense. I think there will be some natural production that comes his way because of the nature of the offense."

On his relationship with Lombardi, Williams said they talked after the game.

"I was like, 'I appreciate you,'" he said "It can't happen at a better time. I'm excited about it and looking forward to every opportunity."

Even the one he missed in the end zone in the third quarter, as his big 2021 debut could have been even bigger.

"It was a missed opportunity. Throughout the game, I made up for it," Williams said. "Coming out this week we have to make plays out there because you don't know the outcome. That one play might change the game so just continue to make these plays and the offense lean on me when they need me."

With or without the dreads.