This offseason was a critical one for the 49ers. They entered free agency with a number of high-profile players hitting the open market knowing that if they let them escape, their once Super Bowl-caliber roster would be seismically altered.
Most expected the 49ers' secondary, with Richard Sherman, K'Waun Williams, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett and Jaquiski Tartt hitting unrestricted free agency to have to undergo an offseason recalibration. There was always the worry that star left tackle Trent Williams would get an offer he couldn't refuse from another contender, leaving the 49ers with a massive hole at one of the sport's most important positions. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a vital piece to the success of coach Kyle Shanahan's offensive system, also was set to field offers.
The stage was set for the 49ers to lose top-level talent and be forced to find creative ways to patch up vital roster holes if they wanted to get back to contention in 2021.
But general manager John Lynch and the 49ers' front office had a plan. One they executed to perfection and topped off Wednesday when they agreed to bring back K'Waun Williams on a one-year contract.
Williams' return is the final stroke in a free-agency plan that saw the 49ers retain Trent Williams, Verrett, Moseley, Tarrt and Juszczyk while also adding veteran center Alex Mack, edge rusher Samson Ebukam and others.
The 49ers truly believed their roster was primed for a Super Bowl return last season before an unprecedented rash of injuries derailed them from the jump.
Williams' return is a big win for the 49ers. He's one of the best cover slot corners in the NFL. Williams gave up 0.80 yards per coverage snap in the slot last season, per Pro Football Focus, ranking fourth behind Bryce Callahan, Jalen Ramsey and Ross Cockrell. He did so in a season in which the 49ers' vaunted pass rush was a shadow of itself with Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas missing almost the entire season.
Good nickel backs are vital to defensive roster construction in today's NFL, and Williams, had he left, would have been difficult to replace this offseason.
The one-year contract allows Williams, 30, to hit the market again next offseason when more teams are expected to be willing to spend big dollars and lets the 49ers draft his replacement with one of their nine picks in the 2021 NFL Draft without throwing the rookie into the fire right away.
Everything came together for the 49ers this offseason, with the re-signing of Trent Williams serving as a signal that they would be a real Super Bowl threat in 2021. The 49ers restructured the contracts of Ford and center Weston Richburg, giving them much-needed cap breathing room and used what was a weak market due to the shrunken cap to retain Verrett, K'Waun Williams and Tartt on one-year deals.
Prior to K'Waun Williams' return, the 49ers had Dontae Johnson as their top corner behind Verrett and Moseley. That was a precarious position for a Super Bowl hopeful to be in, especially given the number of injuries they sustained in 2021 and Verrett's rocky health history. That picture looks a lot rosier with K'Waun Williams returning.
The 49ers still need to address their long-term secondary future in the draft, have to find a slot receiver and add interior offensive line depth which is relatively non-existent at this point. Another edge rusher also wouldn't hurt. They need to find a reliable backup quarterback to have as insurance behind Jimmy Garoppolo.
There is work still to be done, but the primary boxes have all been checked and the key talent retained. Now, the 49ers can focus on their secondary plan knowing they don't have to scramble to plug a hole at a vital position.