Without the help of a flux capacitor or Dr. Emmett Brown, this series will attempt to take a look back in time to help us predict the future dynasty results of some of our current fantasy stars. Mike Williams is the second receiver to be profiled in this series, and like Andy Dalton, he's another player that I'm an outlier on in terms of 2013 rankings. I started Dalton's write up by comparing him to Willie Nelson...and if Dalton is Nelson than Williams is more like Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect.
Williams burst on to the fantasy scene in 2010 with 964 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, placing him 11th amongst all receivers in fantasy points. His 2011 season was a well-documented disaster (as was the Bucaneers season), but he bounced back very strong in 2012. Last year he finished as a mid-level WR2 despite the fact that he was the WR2 on his own team; at least we all thought he was. In the second half of 2012, Williams actually outperformed Jackson in Tampa Bay, largely because Jackson and Doug Martin drew all of the defense's attention.
So what does this "V" of a career arc in a receiver's first three years mean? For that, let's look at Williams' three best career arc comps; Anquan Boldin, Chris Chambers, and Cris Collinsworth.
The first thing you notice in the arcs above is that all three comps regressed after their third season, but all maintained a level of production far above their sophomore slump. Also, all three still had another peak season left in their career, with Chambers' coming in season five while Boldin and Collinsworth peaked in year six. The three receivers played a combined 18 seasons after this point of their career, and 77% of their collective seasons fell in between their sophomore slump and their third-year breakout.
The most erratic arc above is that of Chris Chambers. A large part of that can be contributed to the fact that Chambers played with a variety of inexperienced, or over-the-hill, quarterbacks during what should have been the peak of his career. This made his fantasy value almost completely dependent upon touchdowns, and he couldn't find any consistency there. This could be a concern for Williams if A) he doesn't get a deal signed and ends up as a free agent next year or B) the rumors regarding Greg Schiano's doubts about Josh Freeman become reality and Schiano fails to find an adequate replacement. Both of those seem unlikely to me, but it's something to think about beyond 2013.
If Chambers was erratic then Cris Collinsworth was old reliable, at least until he suffered a drastic drop off in year seven. Unlike Chambers, Collinsworth played a majority of his career with two very effective quarterbacks, Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason. This helps to account for why Collinsworth was so consistent in his production after year three, but what about the early decline in his career? If you guessed injuries, you're only partially correct. While Collinsworth did struggle with injuries, he also seemed to struggle with commitment. He first tried to jump ship to the USFL and then enrolled in law school while in the prime of his career. Collinsworth admitted that his classes caused him to miss team meetings, and after the USFL snafu it's not hard to imagine why his career ended as abruptly as it did. I would say that the stability of Collinsworth's career through year six serves as a good model for Williams, but the early decline was caused by events we're not likely to see again.
The final player on Williams comp list is both the most productive, and the most recent, Anquan Boldin. Boldin's sophomore slump can be largely attributed to injury, but that was a theme that played out over a large portion of the wide receiver's prime. Boldin missed an entire season's worth of games from age 24-28 before being traded to the Baltimore Ravens at age 30. Boldin played most of his prime with Kurt Warner at the helm but like Williams, also spent most of his career as the #2 behind Larry Fitzgerald. While there are similarities, there are also differences. On the positive side, Williams has shown no propensity for injury to this point in his career, and Vincent Jackson isn't as young or as talented as Fitzgerald was. On the negative side, Josh Freeman is no Kurt Warner, and the Bucaneers have a much stronger running game than the Cardinals did when Boldin was there.
For a different view on this, let's take a look at what these receivers have done on a fantasy point per game (FPG) basis:
In looking at this, it's important to recognize that the last few years 8-10 FPG has qualified as a low-WR1 to mid-WR2 while anything above 10 is a pretty solid WR1. In other words, over the next three seasons this group posted WR1 numbers 44% of the time, WR2 numbers 44% of the time and had just one sub WR2 season in the group. That one season saw Chambers catching passes from Joey Harrington, a washed-up Daunte Culpepper, and Cleo Lemon. Also, even though Boldin and Chambers didn't disappear like Collinsworth did, the group posted just one solid WR2 season after year six.
OBSERVATIONS AND PROJECTIONS
The first thing that should jump out of this article at you is that for the next three seasons, Williams is much more likely to produce at a pace near his first and third seasons than that of his second. It's quite possible that Williams still has yet to have his career year, and assuming his good fortune with injuries continues he should be a solid bet to post WR2 numbers for the next 3-4 years. Vincent Jackson is even less of a concern for Williams than Larry Fitzgerald was for Boldin, as Jackson turned 30 earlier this year while Williams is still four years his junior.
The one unknown regarding Williams is his contract situation. For redraft owners, Williams gets a bump up the board if he enters the season without a new contract. While NFL players don't generally need extra motivation, the fact that he'd be playing for a new contract only increases the chances that 2013 is a career year. If he does sign a new contract, that will guarantee one half of the stability that dynasty owners are looking for. It would still be possible that Tampa Bay chooses not to keep Josh Freeman around, but the odds of losing Freeman and replacing him with someone worse are not great. Williams is a strong buy in dynasty leagues, especially if you can find someone that values him in line with his current ADP. Williams is currently going off the board in redraft leagues at the start of the 7th round as the 36th wide receiver taken. This represents tremendous value for someone with his talent and opportunity.