49ers CB K’Waun Williams deserves much more praise

K'Waun Williams #24 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
K'Waun Williams #24 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The 49ers have quietly received excellent production from nickel corner K’Waun Williams, who won’t go as unnoticed in a contract year in 2020.

Back in 2017, when the San Francisco 49ers inked former Cleveland Browns cornerback K’Waun Williams to a one-year deal, it didn’t generate much of any attention. After all, the Niners were going through a massive rebuild under then-first-year general manager John Lynch, and Williams wasn’t seen as one of those big-ticket acquisitions fans crave when they’re looking at a complete overall.

Especially considering Williams missed the previous year with an injury.

Three seasons and a contract extension later, Williams has now emerged as one of the best nickel backs in the game. Despite his smallish 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame, Williams showed he’s more than capable playing bigger than his size. And he was one of the reasons why San Francisco’s defense ranked No. 1 against the pass last year.

Additionally, Williams and fellow defensive backs, Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley, were listed as Pro Football Focus‘ No. 2 cornerback trio entering 2020.

But nickel corners rarely get the attention or money boundary cornerbacks receive. Williams’ traditional stats, too, are misleading:

K’Waun Williams Defense & Fumbles Table
3 yr3 yrSFO43243800499612.01501173395
2 yr2 yrCLE2610000010322.077601723

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/7/2020.

These are what usually generate Pro Bowl selections, and Williams has yet to receive one to his name. But his presence on the field goes beyond interceptions and tackles, even though he showed a knack for doing that last year, too.

Williams is now entering a contract year. At 29 years old, there are more than enough reasons to assume he’ll be just as productive as ever, considering the Niners secondary has remained largely unchanged from a season ago.

Is there room for regression, though? What could potentially be the issues holding Williams back?

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series evaluates Williams’ performance and speculates what’s in store for his future.

Why K’Waun Williams improves with 49ers in 2020

Three years in, Williams has shown to be a natural fit in coordinator Robert Saleh’s defense. His first year with San Francisco, Williams earned an excellent 75.3 overall PFF grade. And while he saw something of a drop the following year, his 2018 66.7 mark wasn’t bad at all.

But it’s Williams’ 77.2 overall mark from last year that should stand out. That number ranked 14th best among all cornerbacks last year, not just nickel corners, putting Williams right at the top of the league’s elite.

And as far as nickel corners go, Williams’ 0.99 yards allowed per snap ranked seventh best for slot coverage.

This has been consistent with what Williams was able to do for much of his pro career, particularly his San Francisco tenure. But he surely added to his game with two interceptions and four forced fumbles last year, increasing his potency.

Heading into a contract year should serve as plenty of motivation for Williams to replicate what he did a year ago.

Why K’Waun Williams regresses with 49ers in 2020

There was one troubling aspect to Williams’ game last year: missed tackles.

Per PFF, Williams missed 11 of these, which marked a career high. With Sherman and Moseley locking down the boundaries, it wouldn’t be shocking to see yet another uptick in targets this season. Last year, Williams led all Niners defensive backs with 73 targets in coverage, allowing 54 catches in the process. Before that, Williams never was targeted more than 60 times in a single season.

Part of that is due to health. Williams has missed time in each of the last three seasons. Yet with the increased attention, there’s also room for an increase in mistakes.

Williams isn’t immune to those, and by tacking on some additional missed tackles, one can see how a potential downturn could wind up happening.

Plus, as he begins to age towards the wrong side of 30 years old, it’s only natural to see him struggle against the NFL’s trend to shiftier, more-aggressive slot receivers.

Projected role, long-term future with 49ers

San Francisco waived injured defensive back D.J. Reed, who was eventually claimed by the Seattle Seahawks. That puts more pressure on Williams to stay fully healthy as the Niners’ starting nickel back. The 49ers have fellow defensive back Jamar Taylor as a backup, but that’s only a guard against any potential Williams injury.

The focus for Williams extends beyond this upcoming season. Niner Noise’s Robert Morrison argued Williams had to be a re-sign candidate for 2021, along with Moseley, and the fact nickel backs rarely receive the top-dollar contracts as boundary corners is a good sign for a San Francisco squad budding up against a probably decreasing salary cap next year.

Over the Cap valued Williams’ 2019 efforts at an annual average value of just over $6 million per year, meaning it won’t be easy to simply re-sign him.

Especially if Williams puts in yet another top-quality campaign this season.

Yet that’s what the 49ers are hoping for, and the idea is going to be for him to hopefully stick around beyond that.

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If for no other reason than he deserves a lot more attention than he’s received thus far.