SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Returning from a season away and moving to a new team caused Trent Williams to have a big smile Thursday when he met with Bay Area reporters for the first time on a video conference call.
“I feel rejuvenated,” Williams said, “to say the least.”
So should the 49ers after acquiring Williams, a seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle, the same day six-time Pro Bowler Joe Staley announced his retirement Saturday.
Getting Williams from Washington for a 2020 fifth-round pick and 2021 third-round pick was arguably San Francisco’s biggest coup of the offseason. Particularly after filling its most glaring needs at defensive tackle and receiver in the first round of the NFL draft by adding Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk with the 14th and 25th picks.
Williams reunites with coach Kyle Shanahan and a number of 49ers assistants who were with Washington when he was drafted fourth overall in 2010. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator while his father, Mike Shanahan, was head coach during Williams’ first three seasons.
The 49ers are getting one of the NFL’s best left tackles, still in his prime, who should hit the ground running thanks to his familiarity with Shanahan’s complicated offense. That experience should prove vital given there won’t be a regular offseason program due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Under regular circumstances I think it would be extremely challenging. I think it would be next to impossible to be as effective as you want to be without having a proper offseason,” said Williams. “(But) being in this case, that I literally can go line up in their huddle and go run a play today. That’s how familiar I am with the offense. The learning curve is a lot shorter.
“I think it’s a hand-in-glove fit. I kind of know this offense like the back of my hand.”
Williams, who turns 32 in July, is coming off a dispute with Washington that led to a trade demand and sitting out the entire 2019 season. He wasn’t happy with the way the medical staff handled a cancerous growth on his scalp and he had a long-running feud with team president, Bruce Allen.
Allen was replaced this offseason when the team hired former Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera who installed a new personnel department. The Shanahans had similar feelings about Allen and Washington owner Daniel Snyder, which didn’t throw a wrench into the trade because Washington was working under a new regime. Allen had reportedly turned down offers at the trade deadline last October that included first-round picks from the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots.
Rivera took less from San Francisco, in part, to resolve the long-standing feud and allow both sides a fresh start despite Washington believing Williams was worth considerably more. Missing all of last season seemingly diminished what he could fetch on the trade market this spring.
“Trent Williams is a first-round value. That’s what he is. That’s what the tape tells you. That’s what everybody knows,” Washington VP of player personnel Kyle Smith told reporters in Washington recently.
The trade was made days after the 49ers began negotiating once they found out Staley was retiring early last week before the draft. General manager John Lynch tried to keep the Staley news under wraps so the league wouldn’t know the 49ers had a massive need heading into the first round.
Taking Kinlaw and Aiyuk, while passing on offensive linemen who were available, like Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs at No. 13 overall, stressed out San Francisco’s brass before the Williams trade was completed. A team with Super Bowl aspirations needed a left tackle and needed one quickly.
“I’d love to say I was really confident but we were definitely assuming some risk,” Lynch said on San Francisco station 95.7 The Game Thursday. “I just think with the nature of relationship with the Shanahan family and Dan Snyder, I felt like that might be a big hurdle.
“Ron Rivera and I have had a very good relationship over the years and I know Ron to be really a man of integrity. So I had faith that he would see this through for the right reasons to the extent that he could control it.”
Williams last played Dec. 20, 2018. Last season was the first he missed since he began playing football as a youngster. During the quarantine he’s been working out at a gym in Houston he owns with star running back, and fellow Oklahoma alum, Adrian Peterson. Williams said his body feels fresh as he’s 16 months removed from his last real action.
“It was my first time in two decades where I wasn’t in a locker room in August,” he said. “It was definitely a turning point in my life, take one of the most important things away but it is what it is. I think it made me stronger. I had a lot of time to sit back and watch the game from afar, just to get a different perspective on it and you gain a different appreciation for it.”
Williams during his last two full seasons allowed just one sack and 11 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus. He was named a Pro Bowler each season from 2013 to 2018 and, like Staley, is widely considered one of the league’s best left tackles thanks to his unique athleticism and power.
Williams said he watched all of the 49ers’ games last season and they were his preferred destination given his relationship with Shanahan.
“Skillset-wise, Trent is similar to Joe,” Shanahan said. “They’re two of the most athletic guys that I have ever been around at that position and they can run and are great for our scheme. He’s a great dude, too. I love the guy and I was able to talk him (Saturday) for the first time in a while and congratulate him. I know it’s been a while for him going through the situation he has for the last year and a half. I know he’s very fresh and is hungry and eager to get back to football as anyone I’ve ever talked to.”
Williams’ long-term status with San Francisco is uncertain. He’s entering the final year of his five-year, $66 million deal he signed in 2015 and will make $12.5 million this season. The 49ers’ plan is to take a wait-and-see approach to ensure Williams fits as seamlessly as they expect before working on a multi-year extension.
The team is limited in its salary cap room, with just $6.9 million in space following the draft and the need to sign All-Pro tight end George Kittle to a market-setting contract. The club is projected to have roughly $45 million in cap room in 2021, according to Overthecap.com.
“It’s a one-year deal and figure it out,” Lynch said of Williams. “We felt like it was important to just get Trent in the building. We felt what we had to give was worth that, to have that position locked up with a guy who is an exceptional player. So we took that leap. I always believe if you want to try to work to get a guy (signed), the best way to do that is to get him in the building, get him comfortable with who we are. I think he’ll really like what we have going on here and we’ll kind of let that all play out.”
For Williams, he’ll have the incentive of contending for a Super Bowl and getting a lucrative new contract next year. The 49ers, who have picks in every round in except the third in 2021, would likely recoup a 2022 third-round compensatory pick if Williams left in free agency next March.
The Texans last week signed left tackle Laremy Tunsil to a three-year, $66 million extension which could offer Williams’ representatives a blueprint in negotiations. Tunsil’s $22 million average salary is the most at left tackle by a considerable margin. Anthony Costanzo of the Colts is second at $16.5 million per season.
“Obviously there’s an incentive for me to play well,” Williams said. “I mean, they gave up a third-rounder next year, they kind of invested in the deal as well. I think both parties are interested in something long term. I’m more than okay with kind of just getting my feet wet and just playing it out.”
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