© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
There has been no shortage of praise for the 49ers defense. But while there have been plaudits for the likes of Nick Bosa, Kwon Alexander, Richard Sherman and anyone else involved in the front six, the rest of the secondary hasn’t quite been given the same attention. Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward have been standouts and seem to be more well-recognized as the season goes, but K’Waun Williams, whether it’s for his stature or fairly reserved nature, hasn’t been paid that due.
That’s despite the frequent pleas of Richard Sherman, who has singled out Williams, maybe more than anyone else, as playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level and integral in what the 49ers’ do. Thanks to Sherman and the 49ers’ front office, the positive chatter may finally be coming for Williams.
Williams gets on the ballot
Today, according to The Athletic’s David Lombardi, the 49ers successfully got Williams onto the ballot, switching him with Ahkello Witherspoon under the consideration that by the end of the season, Witherspoon and Emmanuel Moseley will likely have just about split their snaps. NFL teams are only allowed two corners on the ballot.
The 49ers were able to successfully petition the NFL for a change to the Pro Bowl ballot: K’Waun Williams and Richard Sherman are now the two cornerbacks listed on the ballot.
There is no nickelback spot on the ballot, and the 49ers feel Williams is deserving of the Pro Bowl.
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) November 14, 2019
Sherman’s pleas for Williams making the Pro Bowl appear to be a major cause of that ballot nod. He was no less thrilled than usual to praise his colleague in the secondary.
“K is just so dynamic in every phase,” Sherman said. If you if you just look at him as, as pass rushing ability in its own, it’s outstanding. If you look at in terms of just coverage ability, it’s outstanding. If you look at him in terms of run fit, it’s outstanding. So he just brings the complete package of playmaking ability and I think that that supersedes position.”
That position—nickel, or slot corner—seems to be the major holdup. The 49ers have gone from mainly 4-3 base sets to nickel packages, with five defensive backs, as their main system, as have many other NFL teams. That switch has, in part, been a response to offenses’ increased use of 11 personnel packages (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers).
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh expressed excitement for Williams, but confusion at the NFL’s Pro Bowl voting system, which still has a fullback and strong side linebacker position, but no nickel.
“Absolutely, he’s earned it,” Saleh said. “I don’t understand the whole system. I still think it’s archaic in terms of the nickel plays the majority of the snaps, but you still have a SAM backer and a fullback. I don’t know how the whole thing works, but I do think slot corners should get a little bit more recognition than they do. And I’m pumped for him that he’s getting that.”
Williams agreed that his position puts him at a disadvantage in terms of award nods.
“I mean, we come in on all 11 personnel and we just provide impact to the team, so just for any slot corner or anybody I wish it was just like a label position,” Williams said.
Williams has allowed a fairly average 64.9% completion percentage (better than Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jalen Ramsey), but those completions are very rarely for a significant gain. Outside of his outlier poor performance in Week 2 against John Ross III, Tyler Boyd and the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s been fantastic, with the 14th-lowest yards-per-target and 15th-lowest yards-per completion averages in the NFL (4.1 yards and 6.7 yards, respectively), according to Pro Football Reference. Among defensive backs, he ranks 10th and 6th in those categories, respectively.
But his value might be just as great as a rusher and tackler in the defending the run. He forced three fumbles against the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night (which leads all cornerbacks for the season) and has two sacks and two interceptions on the year along with 22 tackles.
Williams told KNBR that during his first three seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he worked in on 12 personnel situations (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) sometimes, so operating as a quasi-linebacker is comfortable for him. He said he frequently talks with Saleh, defensive backs coach Joe Woods and inside linebackers coach Demeco Ryans about how to improve his run fit.
The 49ers’ nickel has at least four nicknames: K, KK, Shark and Killer Whale.
He was given “Shark” by head coach Kyle Shanahan in a more comparative sense rather than for appearance, unlike the San Francisco Giants’ Jeff Samardzija. Despite his diminutive, 5’9″ stature, he packs a wallop on hits, leading to Fred Warner giving him the nickname “Killer Whale,” an offshoot of “Shark,” which pokes fun at his size. Williams said he likes all the nicknames.
“We call him the Shark for a reason, because he’s just out there tearing everything up in sight,” Warner said. “I mean he’s super aggressive especially for his size. He’s fearless going in there in the trenches, he’s out there taking on guards and tackles like us. And he covers the best that I’ve ever seen as a nickel. So he kind of is the whole package and in outstanding player for sure.”
Kentavius Street says he’s keeping ready, but health is there
When Street, a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina State in 2018, went on injured reserve for the second-straight season following arthroscopic knee surgery, he told reporters he wouldn’t need the eight required weeks on injured reserve to recover. He was eligible to return by Week 9 (and begin practicing by Week 7) but with wide receiver Jalen Hurd and cornerback Jason Verrett potential return options as well, and no roster spot available, he’s remained on IR.
D.J. Jones’ groin injury has opened a spot for Jullian Taylor (who’s been inactive for all but three games), and Ronald Blair III’s season-ending right ACL tear saw the team re-sign defensive end Damontre Moore, who was a preseason and American Alliance of Football standout (he’s now locker-mates with ex-San Diego Fleet teammate Daniel Brunskill).
When asked if Street would be an option to replace Blair on Tuesday, Shanahan was somewhat dour, saying that he viewed Street more as an interior presence. He didn’t rule it out, but wasn’t optimistic, and the team signed quickly Moore on Wednesday.
Street, who was a defensive end at NC State, told KNBR he views himself as able to play on the interior or on the outside.
“I just feel like I could play anywhere, wherever they need me,” Street said. “I feel like I bring a lot of versatility.”
As far as health goes, Street said he would feel comfortable going back to practice next week.
“More than ready,” Street said. “[Rehab] has been going great so far. Just at this point in time, we’re just doing a lot of fine tuning and everything, making sure everything’s right and everything’s strong.”
Street credited his teammates for “making sure I keep my head up,” while on the shelf for most of the past two years, and still without having played a single down in the NFL. He expressed confidence and faith in Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, saying that his focus is on ensuring he’s ready if/when he’s called upon.
“It just all depends,” Street said. “You know, with how violent this game is, you never know who will be around, so I’m just trying to be available.”
Fogginess with Ahkello Witherspoon, but he says he’s “ready to go”
The most confusing injury situation on the 49ers is Ahkello Witherspoon.
Shanahan said October 14 he’d have a chance to play against the Carolina Panthers on October 27.
On October 21, Shanahan said Witherspoon had suffered a setback and did not expect him to play against the Panthers. On October 28, the Monday after the Panthers win, Shanahan said of Witherspoon: “We feel very good about the Seattle game,” and that he did not have a setback.
While Shanahan expressed that confidence for a Seahawks return, he said November 7, when Witherspoon did not practice, that he wasn’t surprised and Witherspoon had suffered a setback in the previous 10 days.
“Not really. I would have been a few weeks ago, but he had that setback 10 days ago or something like that,” Shanahan said. “We knew it was going to come down to this. He was able to do a little bit just rehabbing this weekend. I think he’ll get out there tomorrow, but we’re still holding him today.”
This means that Witherspoon likely had a setback after Shanahan spoke on October 28.
Witherspoon told reporters November 7, after Shanahan spoke, that he viewed the setback as part of the recovery process. He revealed he had suffered a quad strain, in addition to the foot sprain he was recovering from.
He said then: “I’m not healthy enough to play football right now.”
Witherspoon practiced in limited fashion on Friday and Saturday of last week, and was limited again on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
On Tuesday, Shanahan said that Witherspoon would need to show three solid days of practice to get his starting job back over Emmanuel Moseley, but that when he’s proven his health, the job will be his.
“If Ahkello can come out to practice, gets three good days in, show exactly where he’s at, then we’d give him his job back,” Shanahan said. “He’s going to have to have a good week of practice to do that.”
Despite that seemingly high bar, Witherspoon’s tune was much more optimistic when speaking to him on Wednesday, and said he expected to practice each day of this week.
“I’m good, I’m ready to go,” Witherspoon told KNBR.