Ranking top-25 49ers: No. 22 Joe Williams
Before the start of training camp at the end of July, we’ll rank the top 25 49ers based on production at their position, physical attributes, upside and expected impact in 2017.
No. 22: Joe Williams, RB
The 49ers this offseason overhauled their group of running backs behind presumptive starter Carlos Hyde, looking for more speed to run Kyle Shanahan’s scheme built around the outside zone.
The key component of the new-look group is recent four-round pick Joe Williams from Utah, whom Shanahan badly wanted in the NFL draft despite new general manager John Lynch taking him off San Francisco’s board because he temporarily quit football last season.
Williams (5-11, 210) has the speed and quickness to pressure the edges of defense, evident by his 4.41 in the 40, and could soon become a valuable contributor. The 49ers lacked an every-down option behind Hyde the last two seasons causing a severe drop off when Hyde missed time with various injuries.
Gone are DuJuan Harris, Shaun Draughn and Mike Davis. In are Williams, Kapri Bibbs, Tim Hightower and Matt Breida, whom Shanahan hand-picked for his system.
The hope is Williams can evolve into a potential starter and spend the season developing while the team figures out what to do with Hyde, who’s entering the last year of his rookie contract. Williams as a senior in 2016 ran for 1,407 yards on 210 carries (6.7 average) and scored 10 touchdowns in nine games.
The learning curve is steep for Hyde in the new offense. He spent the last two seasons with the 49ers working almost exclusively on inside zone and zone read runs out of shotgun, which was also a key component of his offense at Ohio State.
Shanahan’s new system features the quarterback under center and the running back deep in the backfield, dramatically altering Hyde’s timing and ability to read the line of scrimmage while he looks for holes.
Williams is a more natural fit in that style, which was a key reason Shanahan pushed for the Utah alum in the fourth round. The goal may be to replicate the Falcons’ top-five running attack from last season that was centered around Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, making it important for San Francisco to develop a two-pronged approach at running back.
Williams will also benefit from working with running backs coach Bobby Turner, who’s made a habit of producing 1,000-yard rushers out of mid-round draft picks in both Kyle Shanahan and Mike Shanahan’s systems dating back to his time with the Falcons (2015-16), Washington (2010-13) and Broncos (1995-2009).
Without a true franchise quarterback and a receiving corps that lacks a viable No. 1 option, the running game is going to be paramount to San Francisco’s success in 2017. That means Williams will be an important player to keep an eye on while he develops with an eye toward earning a starting role in 2018 if Hyde doesn’t a get a new deal to remain a 49er.