The San Francisco 49ers‘ defense was an interesting commodity during the 2019 season.
There was significant star power throughout the 49ers’ front-seven in 2019, but the secondary, outside of corner Richard Sherman, hasn’t necessarily gotten the same attention as some of the positional groups with bigger names.
A great example of this is K’Waun Williams. The slot corner has been a key facet of the San Francisco defense since 2017, when general manager John Lynch and the 49ers took a chance on Williams with a one-year, $615,000 contract.
Pro Football Focus recognized his understated success on Wednesday, highlighting Williams as the 49ers most underrated player heading into the 2020 season.
The most underrated players on each team in the NFL. A certain slot corner who gets a lot of love from this account makes the list. https://t.co/qUcqKPsgSM
— PFF SF 49ers (@PFF_49ers) May 27, 2020
PFF’s Stance on Williams
According to PFF, the driving force behind the selection of Williams is his coverage grades.
Even as an undrafted rookie out of Pittsburgh, Williams showed early on that there was a place for him in the NFL in the slot. His 90.3 coverage grade during his 2014 rookie season on 350 defensive snaps speaks for itself. In his four seasons of action with both the Cleveland Browns and 49ers, Williams has remained a quality option inside.
The only two qualifying cornerbacks with a better overall grade in the slot than Williams since 2014 are Chris Harris Jr. and Desmond King II. His play was an underrated component of San Francisco’s success on defense in 2019, and he’ll likely be a big reason for the team’s continued success next season.
The mention of Los Angeles Chargers CB and four-time Pro Bowler Chris Harris Jr. is probably the most eye-catching. Harris has the proven ability to excel at pretty much any corner spot on the field, but that doesn’t take anything away from Williams’ performances, especially in the context of 2019.
With two picks, four forced fumbles and a sack in the regular season, Williams made the most of his 15 appearances and proved to be exactly what NFL teams are looking for in a slot corner: a reliable coverage defender, but someone who makes plays outside of simple pass coverage.
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Williams’ Journey to 2020
With the recent decision to pick up Williams’ team option, giving the corner a $2.1 million contract for 2020, it’s easy for NFL fans outside of the 49ers’ camp to realize that Williams was a long-shot.
The corner talked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past January ahead of Super Bowl LIV to explain what it took to go from a high school athlete with little attention to an eventual NFC champion.
“Pitt was my only offer,” Williams, 28, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over the phone from San Francisco. “[Former Pittsburgh assistant Jeff] Hafley recruited one of my teammates from high school. … It just so happens that he saw me on tape.”
Hafley ended up reaching out to Lynch to persuade the GM to sign Williams after he was released by the Cleveland Browns. Lynch followed the advice, and the rest is history.
Now, Williams is coming off his best season in the pros and is as just as important piece to the 49ers defense as someone with the fame as Sherman.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, MT. Follow and reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier.