49ers roster 2021: K’Waun Williams’ last year with Niners?

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

The 49ers needed to bring back nickel corner K’Waun Williams in 2021, but he could be playing on a swan-song year with San Francisco.

In many ways, the San Francisco 49ers punted on their long-term needs for the secondary heading into 2021.

Three case examples? The Niners re-signed defensive backs Jason Verrett, Jaquiski Tartt and nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams to cheap, team-friendly one-year deals amid a lessened salary cap and a shaky free-agent market.

Williams, now 30 years old, had to be a top priority. One of the NFL’s better slot-cover cornerbacks when healthy, Williams has been part of San Francisco’s defensive resurgence since joining the rebuild under general manager John Lynch back in 2017.

And while nickel corners rarely receive the attention or money boundary cornerbacks get, Williams has been nonetheless important to the 49ers’ efforts the last four years.

K’Waun Williams Defense & Fumbles Table
4 yr4 yrSFO512838004913714.017213438147
2 yr2 yrCLE2610000010322.077601723

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/20/2021.

It’s also possible 2021 marks the final year Williams spends with the Niners, as the team looks to get both younger and cheaper.

Especially if Williams winds up having a high-impact season in 2021, which could price him out of San Francisco’s comfort level.

Why K’Waun Williams improves with 49ers in 2021

If there was one key area in which Williams will look to be better this season, it’ll be through his availability.

Williams missed eight games last year with a variety of injuries. The 49ers got by without his presence, thanks largely to another fill-in defensive back, Jamar Taylor, and starting free safety Jimmie Ward bumping down to cover the slot.

Ideally, though, Ward stays atop the defense, and Williams continues to man the nickel spot.

One of the ways Williams might thrive, however, would be if first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans sends the 5-foot-9 defensive backs on nickel blitzes. With six sacks and 10 quarterback hits over his career, Williams has been effective enough at doing this.

Read More: 3 changes DeMeco Ryans might employ with 49ers defense in 2021

Along with Williams’ solid coverage efforts, sending him as a blitzer would only increase his value to the Niners defense this season.

Why K’Waun Williams struggles with 49ers in 2021

There are a few areas of concern with Williams’ possible regression, made more notable by him now being on the wrong side of 30 years old.

The recent injury history won’t dissolve anytime soon, and Williams’ pass-coverage grades from Pro Football Focus over the last four years suggests a slight downturn in his effectiveness heading into 2021:

  • 2017: 73.8
  • 2018: 66.0
  • 2019: 75.7
  • 2020: 64.8

Williams’ 2020 pass-coverage grade was actually the lowest of his career in this category. And while not bad from PFF’s perspective, it could be indicative of what’s to come.

At the same time, however, San Francisco didn’t exactly have a thriving pass rush last season, and no defensive back can stay with his receiver forever if the pass rush isn’t getting home.

Projected impact with 49ers in 2021

The 49ers want two things to happen with Williams this season:

  1. Stay healthy
  2. Perform as a top-end nickel defensive back

The second to-do item could potentially push Williams out of the Niners’ long-term plans, though, and it’s possible they’re envisioning replacements anyway. Back on his one-year deal worth $2.38 million, Williams is likely looking at his last big free-agent contract in his career in 2022, meaning he has all the incentive to play well this season to cash in.

Almost as if it was thinking Williams won’t be back next year, San Francisco subsequently drafted two corners last spring who could potentially take over for him, Ambry Thomas in Round 3 and Deommodore Lenoir in Round 5.

Neither is automatically ready to go now, however, meaning Williams is easily the most impactful slot-cover option the 49ers have at the position heading into 2021.

And while he might not be with the Niners after this season, one should look back at his tenure in San Francisco with some gratitude. He helped turn the 49ers around in a lot of ways.

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