The San Francisco 49ers have gotten significant contributions from their 2017 rookie class, with running back Joe Williams the only draft pick to not set foot on the field this regular season. The 49ers placed Williams on injured reserve during final roster cuts in early September following an ankle injury.
At the time, Williams was coming off a less than stellar preseason campaign. There was some thought that the injury was a convenient opportunity to stash Williams rather than cut him at this point. On Friday, head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked about Williams, and his answered offered some insight into the injury and the process.
“His ankle’s good now. He can play right now if he was able to go, but we had to make that decision early. He’s been working hard, he’s been in the weight room hard. He’s been in as good a shape as he’s been in, running and lifting with Ray. Been in a number of our meetings. It’s always a challenge for those guys that go on IR, especially early in the year, because they miss the whole thing. But he’s been around, and I know him and another number of guys that have been — he’s as eager to go as anybody to start this offseason.”
NFL teams are allowed two return designations for players on injured reserve, but those players cannot go on IR until after final cuts are made. The 49ers used this when they placed Ronald Blair on IR the day after final cuts. If the 49ers thought Williams could return and contribute this year, they could have done that. Instead, they placed him on IR the day of final cuts, thus ending his season.
The coming offseason is a big one for Williams and the running back position. Matt Breida established himself as a strong complement to Carlos Hyde. This spring, Hyde can test free agency. He has said he would like to return, but we don’t know what the 49ers want to do, and we don’t know what the market will dictate.
If Hyde departs, Breida and Williams will compete with whomever the 49ers bring in via the draft or free agency. The 49ers have been regularly connected to Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, and they have the cap space to sign any of the big name running backs due to hit the market.
This was not an entirely lost year for Williams. He got a chance to study the playbook, attend meetings, and get a lot of work in an NFL-caliber strength and conditioning program. He heads into this coming offseason with a lot of work to do, but a big opportunity available to him.