Lynch: 49ers will be proactive in assisting Joe Williams

Lynch: 49ers will be proactive in assisting Joe Williams

SANTA CLARA -- After months of evaluations and discussions, it took just a couple of phone calls for Utah running back Joe Williams to go from a player who did not even warrant a spot on the 49ers’ draft board to becoming a valued prospect worthy of a trade-up in the fourth round to acquire.

“The talent was undeniable, but when you hear ‘Quit the team,’ it was like ‘No, not interested,’” 49ers general manager John Lynch said.

But, just as it is in most cases, there was a lot more to this story of why Williams “retired” – or quit -- early in his final season of college football.

“I talked to his head coach, Kyle Whittingham, and Kyle said, ‘Let’s be very clear, he did not quit the team,’” Lynch said. “He physically and mentally got tired and broke down and he asked for advice on what they should do. He stepped away.”

On Saturday morning, just hours before the 49ers had to make a decision, Lynch called Williams to learn more about the person.

"I came in and I got on the phone with Joe," Lynch said. "I think it’s a wonderful story and it turned in from, 'I have no interest,' because my perception was anyone who quits a team I don’t want. And then I learned about the kid and I got a great deal of respect for how far he’s come and you mix that with the talent and it became someone we actually moved up to go secure.”

Williams remained away from the Utah team for a month. After the Utah backfield sustained some injuries, Whittingham went back to Williams and asked if he would return. Williams said he would. But Whittingham had to get approval from the remainder of the team. He was enthusiastically welcomed back.

Williams returned – and in a big way.

In the final seven games of the season Williams averaged 27 carries for 190 yards, including a 332-yard, four-touchdown performance against UCLA. He capped the season with 222 yards rushing against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook was generally regarded as a first-round talent whose character concerns saw him drop to the ninth pick of the second round. Cook is 5 foot 10, 210 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 and the 20-yard shuttle in 4.53.

Williams (5-11, 210) ran a faster 40 (4.41) than Cook, while being significantly quicker in the 20-yard shuttle (4.19).

If it weren’t for Williams’ extraordinary skill as a runner, the 49ers might not have given him a second look. Coach Kyle Shanahan insisted that Lynch reconsider the decision to remove him from the 49ers’ draft board. Shanahan said he did not initially give Williams much consideration because all he knew was that he quit on the team.

“And then just on a random boring day, just watching other guys, I threw it on and watched it a little bit more and when the tape is that talented you want to look into those things a little bit more, and we did and we felt so much better about it,” Shanahan said. “When you see that overall ability, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but it means he has the ability to make all the cuts, the abilities to be a very good back in this league. Now he has to come do it and be consistent.

“After talking with him, his coaches, a lot of people who’ve known him, some of the things he’s gone through, we feel very good about the guy. We know there’s things we do need to help him with, but I think he can have a very bright future for us and for himself in the NFL.”

Shanahan said Williams’ speed, cutting ability, power and balance are as good as anybody in the draft. However, there is plenty in his background for teams to be alarmed.

He was kicked off his first college team, UConn, after being arrested for stealing a teammate’s credit card and having a backpack worth $124.90 shipped to his Pennsylvania home.

“I made that mistake with the situation with my teammate’s credit card,” Williams said. “But I learned from that and I continue to learn from my mistakes and just grow and mature. I can assure the 49ers organization and the fans that I’m a completely new person.”

In September, Williams had a difficult time coping with stress and physical ailments. He needed time to get away from the sport and come to grips with his past. Williams told Bay Area reporters he carried the guilt of his sister’s death for the past decade. On June 19, 2006, Williams’ 7-year-old sister, Kylee, passed away due to a heart condition.

“I was taking care of her to and from her bed you know, that’s when she died in my hands,” Williams said. “So just the guilt and shame that I had put upon myself, because I didn’t act quickly enough for, you know, with my parents or to call 911. I always thought that it was my fault.”

Williams said he needed time to take care of himself in September.

“And as the season started and I knew that my mental health wasn’t where it needed to be, I knew that the best option for me was to sit down in front of my wife and my coaches and just tell them where I was at,” he said. “And we came to the decision that stepping back at that time would be for my best interest, not only for football but life after football.

“I got psychiatric help to get my life back in order because at that time I was in shambles. I did a lot of soul searching.”

Williams got a tattoo on his left arm that reads, “My Sister’s Keeper.” He plans to have Kylee’s face tattooed on his shoulder, as well. He visited her grave in Pennsylvania.

“I finally forgave myself,” Williams said. “That was the biggest thing.

“She was everything. She still is everything. She’s gone now and she’s just the chip on my shoulder that I use every day, gets me up out of the bed.”

Lynch said the 49ers will fully support Williams and provide all the resources he might need to continue to cope with the traumatic event of his childhood.

“We’re going to be very proactive -- not just with him, with all our players and in particular the rookies to support them in every way,” Lynch said. “It’s something that Joe and I talked about. ‘I know you’ve addressed it, but are you comfortable with us reassessing things, where you’re at and then from there gathering a plan?’ He indicated that’s what he wants. That’s what we’ll do.”

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”