49ers’ 2018 ‘Who Is?’ series: Cornerback K’Waun Williams

SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 24: Keelan Cole #84 of the Jacksonville Jaguars is tackled by K'Waun Williams #24 of the San Francisco 49ers after a catch during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 24: Keelan Cole #84 of the Jacksonville Jaguars is tackled by K'Waun Williams #24 of the San Francisco 49ers after a catch during their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise edges closer to the conclusion of our 2018 “Who Is?” series, taking a look at veteran San Francisco 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams and his role this upcoming season.

Early on in 2017, nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams was having some notable issues during his first year with the San Francisco 49ers.

Williams, of course, was one of general manager John Lynch’s first pickups after taking over duties that season. The former Cleveland Browns corner had some upside despite missing all of 2016 with an ankle injury.

The positive traits are certainly what drew Lynch to target Williams on a one-year deal in 2017. And despite his early struggles, Williams ended up appearing in 14 regular-season games with San Francisco last season, emerging as one of the more reliable defensive backs on the team’s roster.

K’Waun Williams Defense & Fumbles Table
2 yr2 yrCLE2610000010322.059175
1 yr1 yrSFO1451270275211.042122

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/17/2018.

The 5-foot-9, 183-pound Williams played his college ball at Pittsburgh, going undrafted in 2014 before signing on with the Browns that season.

His smallish frame certainly influenced his UDFA status. Despite that, Williams earned a reputation for playing bigger than his actual size indicated. And as a nickel corner lining up over the slot, Williams managed to carve out a nice niche for himself at the pro level.

He’ll be pressured in training camp, though. Despite inking a three-year extension with the Niners earlier, the 49ers’ selection of Kansas State nickel back D.J. Reed in this year’s NFL Draft should create a nice little competition.

It’s one Williams could easily win out of camp, but he’ll have to show some serious effort to do so.

Why Williams Improves in 2018

Williams finished last year with an 80.2 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus, which was second highest among all Niners corners and ranked 44th out of 121 qualifiers. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, as Williams finished strong but got off to a slowish start.

Over the year’s entirety, opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of 89.7 when targeting Williams, per PFF — 55th out of 86 qualifiers. That’s not bad, per se. But looking at only the first half of the season, Williams’ passer rating allowed was 100.5.

There could be any number of reasons for the improvement in the second half. First, he gained a better grasp of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s system. On top of that, Williams missed all of 2016 with said injury and likely had to shake off some rust.

Assuming he stays healthy for 2018, we’re likely to see more of Williams’ second-half efforts over the entirety of this season. And that’s a good thing.

Why He Regresses

Given Williams’ size, he’s essentially only cut out to man nickel duties. That’s what’s going to count the most this season.

And despite the overall efforts, no other nickel back was targeted more in 2017 than Williams — 41 times, per PFF. This resulted in him having the league’s worst cover-snaps per reception metric of 5.4, essentially meaning Williams was targeted just under every sixth pass attempt while on defense.

Opponents clearly wanted to take advantage of Williams last year. With San Francisco inking free-agent cornerback Richard Sherman this offseason, combined with the maturation of second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon, it’s likely that trend will continue.

If Williams isn’t able to cut down on the relatively high passer rating allowed from last year, he could end up being something of a liability for the 49ers defense.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

Expected Role with the 49ers in 2018

Williams would cost the Niners $3.5 million in dead money if cut before Week 1. And while Reed is promising, it’s not likely he takes over starting duties right away. If anything, that’s insurance against a possible Williams injury and, down the road, a replacement option.

Because of that, Williams likely assumes the starting nickel job in 2018. It’s an important position too. The use of 11-personnel (three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back) formations dropped slightly in 2017, down to 59.3 percent from 60.4 percent the previous year, according to Football Outsiders’ Bryan Knowles. But this formation is still, far and away, the leading offensive package teams use today. And with Williams having seen 632 snaps last season — third highest in the 49ers secondary — there’s no reason to assume he’ll have a lesser role this year.

Williams just turned 27 years old, so he could still be hitting the prime of his career. And with a full year’s work within the system, and without notable injury, we should see a noted improvement.

Reed’s pressure is a good thing too, pushing Williams to showcase why he earned that three-year extension.

Next: 49ers 2018 offseason positional preview: Cornerback

And if Williams can cut down on the allowed passer rating in the process, San Francisco might have one of the better starting cornerback groupings in the NFL this year.