When the 49ers report for training camp next week, there will be plenty of focus on the battle for playing time at cornerback, especially among young players.
Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round pick, could have a chance to unseat Dontae Johnson as a starter. Second-year pro Rashard Robinson figures to earn the starting job on the other side. Another second-year man, Will Redmond, could earn the nickel job.
But one veteran signing in February could prove to be as significant as any other move made this offseason by the 49ers: K’Waun Williams.
Williams, 25, goes into training camp as the team’s best bet to claim the starting job as the team’s nickel cornerback. In offseason team practices, Williams was No. 1 at that spot. Over the 2014 and 2015 seasons in Cleveland, Williams had 10 starts in his 26 games and, as Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee pointed out this week, has a relationship from college at Pittsburgh, and later Cleveland, with his defensive backs coach, Jeff Hafley.
“I’ve always thought the world of him,” Hafley told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year. “And I know he can play.”
Williams missed all of the 2016 season because of an ankle injury that required surgery, but Hafley believes that Williams, if fully healthy, could be a significant contributor.
“I thought he was one of the better nickel backs in the NFL and I’m really, really excited to have him,” Hafley told the Chronicle. “Just a great person. Works hard. Does the right things. … He’s kind of a kid that’s battled his way through and always comes out on top.”
Williams’ main competition for the nickel job is Redmond, a third-round pick in 2016 who was coming off a knee injury but was considered a possible first-round draft choice when he was healthy.
Wrote Barrows: “Williams vs. Redmond promises to be one of the better battles of training camp.”
In 2014-15, the analytic website Pro Football Focus graded Williams as one of the NFL’s best slot corners. Wrote PFF: “Williams was one of just eight players to allow fewer than 1.0 yards per cover snap among cornerbacks with 200 or more snaps in slot coverage, with his 0.94 mark ranking seventh.”
Williams also is a bargain. He has a one-year deal with the 49ers worth $765,000.