Joe Williams

Shanahan encouraged with what he's seen from 49ers RB Joe Williams

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USATSI

Shanahan encouraged with what he's seen from 49ers RB Joe Williams

SANTA CLARA – Running back Joe Williams led the 49ers in rushing yards during the exhibition season as a rookie, but he did not create an overall favorable impression.

Williams was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a minor foot injury heading into the regular season. He came back for the offseason program this year and has placed himself in position to compete for a roster spot.

“I think he has a different mindset – understands a little bit more the standard of the NFL and difference,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Tuesday as the club opens a two-day minicamp to close out the offseason program.

“Joe’s come a long way. I think his body looks a lot better than it did last year. He put on a lot of muscle mass and he took advantage of the year of not playing.”

Williams rushed for 130 yards, averaging 5.2 yards a carry, in the exhibition season a year ago. But his work ethic, consistency and problems with fumbling did not help his cause.

Even this year, it will be difficult to break into the 49ers’ top three running backs: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, who is one of the club’s best players on special teams.

But Williams has shown the reasons the 49ers traded up to select him in the fourth round of last year’s draft.

“When it is blocked right, he has the size and the burst to get through there as fast as anyone,” Shanahan said. “But it’s just about doing it day-in and day-out and protecting the football, and what do you do when the run doesn’t look good. What do you do without the ball in your hands?

“Joe has come a long way in a year, and I’m excited about him coming back to training camp.”

Seven under-the-radar second-year 49ers players

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USATSI

Seven under-the-radar second-year 49ers players

The 49ers saw enough promise in evaluating wide receiver Kendrick Bourne before last year’s draft to sign him as a free agent and patiently wait for him to join the team’s offseason program.

Due to rules governing when rookies are allowed to report full time to their new NFL teams, Bourne could not participate in most of the 49ers’ offseason program last spring due to the late conclusion of classes at Eastern Washington.

Once he arrived in Santa Clara on a full-time basis, the 49ers stuck with Bourne through a couple bumps in the road.

“He was late to a couple of things and I rode him pretty hard,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said this week at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando, Florida. “I didn't think he was quite ready to make an NFL roster, but he was too talented for us to lose. We did believe in him, but he needed to grow up a little bit.”

The 49ers received more snaps last season from their rookie class than any team in the NFL. Many of those players have already established themselves as starters or front-line backups, such as Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, C.J. Beathard, George Kittle, Trent Taylor, Adrian Colbert and Matt Breida.

But there are plenty of other under-the-radar second-year players who could work themselves into significant roles with the organization. Bourne tops the list.

Former teammate and current Los Angeles Rams receiver Cooper Kupp overshadowed Bourne during their time together at Eastern Washington. Kupp averaged 107 receptions, 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns per season over four years.

Bourne piled up nearly 70 catches per season for 1,000 yards and eight TDs over the final three years of his career. Despite all the time he missed in the offseason, Bourne flashed enough to open the season on San Francisco's 53-man roster.

“He took a huge step last year,” Shanahan said. “I know he wasn't totally ready at the beginning of the year, but he was a guy that we thought had too much talent to put on the practice squad. We were scared that we’d lose him.

“I think he was a little overwhelmed at first, but he kept battling through it. Even when we would ride him he didn't go into a shell. He kept working. He and our receiving coach, Mike LaFleur, put in a lot of time together in learning the stuff.”

Bourne (6-foot-1, 203 pounds) appeared in 11 games and played 282 snaps as a rookie. He caught 16 passes for 257 yards but is far from a finished product.

“He better not be relaxing right now, just sitting back and enjoying that, though,” Shanahan said. “He’s got to come and prove himself again this year.”

And the same goes for these other six under-the-radar second-year players:

RB JOE WILLIAMS
There were questions about Williams' commitment coming out for the draft after he took a leave from the Utah football team during his final year of college. General manager John Lynch admits he removed Williams from the team’s draft board. But Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner fell in love with the film, and Lynch placed Williams' name back on the board just before he was selected in the fourth round.

Said Shanahan, “When he had a lane, he had the ability to score, the ability to make the one guy left miss. . . The burst, the leg strength to run through tackles and hit it and be gone.”

Despite Shanahan comparing him to Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman, Williams has a lot to prove just to make the team. He faces an uphill battle for a roster spot after a less-than-impressive offseason and training camp last year. Williams was stashed away on injured reserve with a minor foot injury for his rookie season.

“I expect him to turn up his urgency level this year,” Shanahan said. “I’ve talked to him about that. He said he has. Looking forward to seeing it.”

DE/LB PITA TAUMOEPENU
A sixth-round draft pick last year, Taumoepenu spent 14 games of his rookie season as one of the team’s seven inactive players on game days. He has potential as a pass-rush specialist that the club will want to see this season. The 49ers declined the option on veteran Elvis Dumervil, in part because they want to open the door for some younger players, such as Taumoepenu, who also adds value on special teams.

OL ERIK MAGNUSON
Although it appears unlikely he can play his way into the starting lineup, Magnuson has the versatility required for a backup job. He can play any of the interior positions, including center, as well as right tackle. That ability to fill in at any position could make him valuable as one of two backup offensive linemen to suit up for games.

CB GREG MABIN
The 49ers do not have much depth at cornerback, so more players will certainly be coming to the team via the draft and its immediate aftermath. Mabin bounced around as a rookie. Tampa Bay and Buffalo waived him before he landed on the 49ers’ practice squad. He ended up playing 44 snaps of defense. His size (6-2, 200) is ideal for the 49ers’ scheme. The 49ers have a high opinion of Mabin, who should pull up a chair to Richard Sherman's locker and learn as much as possible from the prototype cornerback for this scheme.

S CHANCELLER JAMES
Before going down with a torn ACL, James looked the part in training camp and was in position to win a spot on the 53-man roster. The 49ers have no intention at this point of re-signing Eric Reid to a backup position. (And, for Reid, there's no reason for him to accept a one-year, low-money contract at this point in the offseason.) The 49ers could add a safety in the draft, but James will still have a solid chance to make his mark this season.

OT DARRELL WILLIAMS
Williams showed enough to earn a spot on the practice squad before his promotion to the 53-man roster for the final eight games. The 49ers must look to the future at offensive tackle. Trent Brown enters the final year of his contract. Brown has to prove his commitment to all facets of the job before the 49ers will even consider offering a lucrative contract extension. Joe Staley enters his 12th season, so it’s uncertain how much longer he can play at a high level. Williams must take a significant step forward this year to prove he is part of the future.

Size matters for 49ers at cornerback

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Size matters for 49ers at cornerback

With the start of the free agency just a couple of weeks ago, here is one man's opinion of the 49ers' top offseason needs:

1. Cornerback
2. Guard
3. Edge rusher
4. Wide receiver
5. Inside linebacker

Here are some other questions for the latest edition of 49ers Mailbag submitted via Facebook:

What corners are the 49ers likely to be looking at in free agency/draft? (Stépheñ Bůrkę)
There are few things of which I am certain when it comes to NFL free agency and the draft, but here is one of them:

If there’s a cornerback available, the 49ers will do their homework and consider the possibility of pursuing him to add to their roster.

Ahkello Witherspoon showed during his rookie season the ability to be a starter-caliber NFL cornerback. Nobody else on their roster, including free-agent-to-be Dontae Johnson, proved capable of being a starter on a team with playoff aspirations.

The 49ers have already done their homework on free agent Vontae Davis, who visited Santa Clara this week, and Marcus Peters, whom the 49ers chose not to pursue from the Kansas City Chiefs with a trade offer.

The personnel department will looking into the entire upcoming free-agent class, including Trumaine Johnson, Aaron Colvin and Kyle Fuller.

As for who might be available in the draft, Iowa’s Josh Jackson and Ohio State’s Denzel Ward appear to be the only candidates who the club would consider with their first-round draft pick. Jackson could have the edge on the 49ers’ draft board due to his size advantage. The 49ers, like the other teams that run their Seattle-influenced defensive scheme, place emphasis on tall corners on the outside.

After their first pick, the 49ers could look to Colorado, again, with 6-foot-1 Isaiah Oliver. Kameron Kelly (6-2) of San Diego State could be a player the 49ers would consider on the second or third down with the idea of moving him back to cornerback.

It seems after the Eagles won the Super Bowl a good back up QB is important. What do you think the Niners will do at backup QB? (Philip Malan)
My first thought is that the 49ers feel pretty good about their quarterback situation. C.J. Beathard definitely has a lot of what Kyle Shanahan wants from a player at that position.

Beathard showed some good things in his time as a rookie, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Obviously, the 49ers will bring in one or two other quarterbacks. More than likely, there could be a journeyman-type and an undrafted rookie. Although I would not rule out a player from the outside beating out Beathard for the No. 2 spot, I’d be surprised if the top two QBs on the 49ers’ roster at the start of the 2018 season are not Jimmy Garoppolo and C.J. Beathard.

Who do you see taking the lead role at RB if Hyde isn't signed? (Ben Gomez)
I don’t think the 49ers necessarily want a so-called “workhorse” at running back. Shanahan would likely prefer to employ multiple backs for different roles.

That said, the 49ers have certainly not given up on re-signing Carlos Hyde. If the price is right, there are plenty of scenarios in which he returns to the organization in 2018.

Joe Williams demonstrated the skillset at Utah that would easily make him the team’s premier back. But the game appeared too big for him last summer during training camp before he was shipped to injured reserve with a relatively minor injury. If Williams returns in April for the offseason program ready to play, he and Matt Breida could easily be the 49ers’ top two backs.

But, certainly, the 49ers are in no position to depend on Williams. It seems unrealistic the 49ers would spend big money on a free agent. They can be expected to add a veteran or two, but nobody who would come in as the no-questions-asked starter. (Remember, a year ago, the 49ers added Tim Hightower and Kapri Bibbs, and neither made the regular-season roster.)

There will certainly be plenty of low-cost, dynamic options available in the draft – as there is every year.