Going into the 2017 NFL season, K’Waun Williams was an afterthought. He had been waived by the Cleveland Browns after a dispute with the team over the severity of his ankle injury.
Williams was claimed by the Chicago Bears, but the deal was nullified after he failed his physical. The nickel corner underwent surgery to correct the issue before signing with the San Francisco 49ers ahead of the 2017 season. His main competition for the starting nickel corner role with the Niners was Will Redmond and Keith Reaser (remember them?).
Head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh named Williams the starter before Week 1 in 2017, and he hasn’t looked back since. The 29-year-old has only missed six games over the past three seasons and has improved each year.
In 2019, Williams finished with 51 tackles (two for a loss), two interceptions, four QB hits, and a sack, helping the Niners’ defense finish second in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game. Pro Football Focus gave Williams a 77.2 grade last season, and more impressively, PFF only has two slot corners ranked better than him since the 2014 season.
Williams is in the final season of his contract, and if he repeats his performance from last season, he will demand a raise on the $2.15 million base salary he’s due in 2020. Williams caught up with the media, and spoke about defending teammate George Kittle, what Dee Ford means to the defense, and more.
On what it likes to cover George Kittle:
You just got to be disciplined from the starting down to the end because he’s real crafty, and he’s strong. He’s just relentless in everything he does. He’s willing to block in a run game. So you just got to be on your A-game going against a guy like that.
On the uncertainty surrounding the salary cap going into a contract year:
I haven’t really paid too much focus on it. Actually. I stuck to my agent, those guys, they’ll take care of it.
On what skills are necessary to be a successful nickel?
Playing nickel, you just got to be really disciplined. You gotta love your job because you got to do a lot of dirty work. You probably got to fit in the run game. You gotta cover well, cover slot receivers well, you just gotta be a complete defender being a smaller guy in there. Being able to mix it up with some of the big guys and cover smaller guys. In terms of development in our group, I mean, it’s been great. Guys just picking up on all our tendencies in terms of how we do our drops, and just working every day.
On his ability to get after the quarterback as a nickel corner?
Just practice. Keep doing it every day. Just being real serious every time I blitz to take a good rush path and, and just keep my eyes on the ball and try to make plays when I arrive at the quarterback.
On playing with no fans in the stadium:
It’ll be a different dynamic, but I feel like you have to bring your own juice and be ready to play football. Any environment, I feel like you just got to be able to adapt and play at a high level.
On what he has seen from Jerick McKinnon so far in camp?
He’s definitely worked this offseason. I’m excited to see him out there. Just being able to make sharp cuts and be confident in his body and just being able to make plays. And this has been amazing just to see him out there and battling with us again.
On where he wants to be better in 2020?
Just understanding everybody’s role around me. And just being able to play hard, you know, just go out there and try to make a difference for your defense and just make plays whenever they arrive. This year is another step to get better. We didn’t like how last year ended, so it’s a lot of room for improvement. Paying the price every day and just working on our techniques.
On how defenses will have to prepare against the offensive weapons the 49ers have on the roster?
You just got to prepare for all kinds of different receivers. You got bigger, stronger guys in Jalen and those guys. You got guys like Trent, who’s gonna give you a lot of moves and is real shifty. You just got to be real disciplined in your technique and just try to cover those guys as best as you can.
On the importance of Dee Ford:
It makes a big difference having Dee out there. Just opens up a lot of rushing lanes for other guys. Just knowing he’s out there, I know we’re just going to be able to attack the ball consistently having him out there. I feel like he’s done a great job taking care of his body this offseason, and been grinding ever since.
On the mindset of the locker room going into the 2020 season:
Everybody’s got a one on one goal. And that’s just attacking every day. And not forgetting what got us here. You know, just being able to work hard every day. And just you try to get back to that moment so we can finish it.