We're going to take a look at 10 -- count 'em, 10 -- players who could be primed for a breakout season in 2014-15. Keep in mind that we won't be including rookies, since we're all very aware that every single player drafted this year will be an immediate success and sure-fire Pro Bowler, to the extent that there's no point in even discussing it (looking at you, Bruce Ellington). I'll probably be wrong on most of these, but when one of them actually works out I'll use this post as ever-lasting proof that a busted clock is right twice per day.
There's nothing more frustrating in sports than a season lost due to injury. It's especially upsetting when that comes early in a player's career, particularly right when that player is expected to go from backup to starter. That's what happened with defensive tackle Ian Williams, who appeared on multiple "breakout player" lists prior to the 2013 season.
Unfortunately, Williams sustained a season-ending ankle injury in the team's Week 2 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks. The injury occurred on a play that
should be illegal under NFL rules, but that's a discussion for a different day was legal at the time, but has since been made illegal. It was a dirty play and it resulted in Williams losing the bulk of his season.
Since that injury, he's had four surgeries, which is obviously not a good sign. Still, Williams is targeting a return for training camp ... I'm not sure that's entirely likely, but him returning at some point before camp wraps up seems like a possibility. He'll certainly be around for the start of the regular season barring any setbacks.
Fortunately, Williams comes back to a DT/NT rotation that doesn't look much different than before. Glen Dorsey exceeded most of our expectations starting in 2013, which means Williams will have a tougher time battling back to his spot, but Dorsey wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Before his injury, Williams was already rotating with Dorsey.
San Francisco likes Dorsey, and I'm willing to bet they like Williams. I know there's a lot of people here who feel the same way ... I was personally very excited when the 49ers signed Williams as an undrafted free agent. I thought he was the best player to go undrafted that year, and always regarded him as a future starter. I he can be healthy going forward, then I still do.
What Needs To Happen
Obviously, Williams needs to come back healthy. How fast he comes back will be key, because he'll need to find a good balance between ensuring he's 100 percent healthy, and ensuring he has time to show the 49ers he's ready to play. Coming back during training camp would be the best-case scenario if he can swing that, as it will give him a chance to instill some confidence in the 49ers when it comes to his abilities.
I don't think Williams is in any danger of immediately losing his spot on the roster -- especially given the lack of depth at the position -- but the actual timing of his return could have a huge impact on how much time he splits with Dorsey next season.
Where He Fits If He's Successful
Williams is a prototypical nose tackle, which is something the 49ers have moved away from in recent years. Then again, the 49ers might be more keen on playing with someone big in the middle while NaVorro Bowman is out with injury. A good nose tackle is an inside linebacker's best friend, after all.
If Williams comes back healthy and he looks the same as he did last season, he'll immediately split time with Dorsey. If he excels, the primary job is his to lose, in my opinion. Nothing would be better than him coming back, showing his stuff and having a long career being a big body that's difficult to push around.