49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Running back Joe Williams

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 11: Running back Joe Williams #32 of the San Francisco 49ers carries the ball during the preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on August 11, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 11: Running back Joe Williams #32 of the San Francisco 49ers carries the ball during the preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on August 11, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise’s 2018 “Who Is?” series looks at talented-yet-frustrating San Francisco 49ers running back Joe Williams and the uphill battle he has to make the 53-man roster this season.

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch didn’t want former Utah running back Joe Williams on his team’s roster at the 2017 NFL Draft.

“I was like, ‘uh uh — not interested,’” Lynch later revealed, via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

After a direct conversation with Williams, though, Lynch changed his mind. And the Niners grabbed the tailback in Round 4 of the draft, No. 121 overall. Certainly head coach Kyle Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner influenced the decision. The tandem is well-known for finding hidden gems at the position, and Williams was going to be the next protege.

But it didn’t happen.

Williams struggled through training camp and into the preseason, namely with ball security and fumbles. While there were signs of greatness there, the overall package wasn’t. And not even Williams’ impressive senior season at Utah could save him.

Joe Williams Rushing & Receiving Table

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 7/13/2018.

The 49ers placed Williams on injured reserve with an ankle injury to start the season. In a sense, they were redshirting the 5-foot-11, 205-pound tailback for use at a later time.

Well, that time has come. But the only issue is Williams is staring up at a depth chart that looks pretty difficult to surmount. The Niners brought in veteran runner Jerick McKinnon to be the primary starter, while second-year pro Matt Breida has a solid hold on the No. 2 job.

Even taking over for third-string running back Raheem Mostert, who solidified his role on the squad with his special teams play, will be a tough challenge.

Can Williams turn the page on his rookie year?

Why Joe Williams Improves in 2018

Williams fumbled just once over 25 preseason carries a year ago. But there were more than a few drops during training camp, which can arguably be more crucial. Meanwhile, Breida assumed the No. 2 role after a strong debut in camp.

A full season and offseason to think about this should do Williams some good. Motivation and competition can be critical in a player’s development.

And it isn’t as if Williams lacks talent. He ran a 4.41 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine, and scouts praised his explosiveness when he was able to reach the second level.

But the ball security will be the one thing Williams will need to improve upon the most.

Why He Regresses

The preseason wasn’t the right time to fumble, and it unfortunately continued a trend that followed him from college — six fumbles on 289 attempts at Utah.

Interestingly enough, Williams’ NFL.com draft profile compares him to McKinnon. So it’s not a stretch to see why Shanahan and Co. targeted both players at various points.

Yet that doesn’t bode well for Williams either. Ideally, teams like to have runners with different skill sets — the “change of pace” back, or so it’s called. If the Niners already have a McKinnon-like player in, well… McKinnon, Williams could be viewed as little more than an afterthought.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

But it will ultimately come down to his ability to hold onto the ball. If he doesn’t, his future with the 49ers doesn’t look bright.

Chances of Making the 49ers’ 53-Man Roster in 2018

Williams is on the bubble, for sure. It’s a guess where, though.

“He’s gotta beat guys out and to beat guys out you gotta be better than them,” Shanahan said, via Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation. “You gotta be better than them at running the ball and better than them at protecting it, and if you’re not, you gotta be better than them at special teams. So you end up keeping three sometimes four running backs and it’s going to be a fun competition to watch this year.”

It’s not likely Shanahan keeps four running backs on the roster. So that means Williams will have to beat out either Breida (as a No. 2 ball carrier) or Mostert (special teams).

Both Breida and Mostert appear to have these roles cemented out for the upcoming season. Unless one is injured or completely flops in training camp, Williams’ chances could be pretty slim.

Next: Predicting 49ers' Week 1 depth chart, 53-man roster

Perhaps the Niners’ faith in him last year carries over, and he winds up carving out a spot. That would be a blessing, but it’s anything but guaranteed.