49ers Mailbag: Rookie RB Williams the favorite to unseat Hyde?

49ers Mailbag: Rookie RB Williams the favorite to unseat Hyde?

The 49ers begin organized team activities next week, which will give the coaching staff an extended opportunity to evaluate players before reconvening for training camp in late-July.

Here are a couple of questions submitted via Facebook about how some notable players fit into the new schemes:

Does Joe Williams have a real shot at supplanting Carlos Hyde as the starter? (Andrew Kerr)
Respected running backs coach Bobby Turner kept in touch with Williams even when he was not on the 49ers' draft board. Coach Kyle Shanahan desperately wanted Williams and convinced general manager John Lynch to reconsider Williams’ exclusion from the team’s draft plan.

The fact Turner and Shanahan campaigned for Williams speaks volumes about their plan for him. Turner and Shanahan wanted Williams. They see something in him. They know exactly how they want to use him.

So, yes, Williams has a legitimate chance to immediately unseat Hyde as the team’s top running back. Hyde is entering the final year of his contract. His first three seasons have been marked by inconsistencies and injuries that have sidelined him for 14 games.

The better player wins the job, and Williams has the distinct advantage of being the running back Turner and Shanahan hand-picked to fit their scheme.

Is Arik Armstead's future in jeopardy because he doesn't have a real position? (Joe Ruckus Marsh)
Solomon Thomas is a good fit at the “big end” position. Veteran Earl Mitchell appears to be the logical choice at nose tackle. And DeForest Bucker is expected to line up at the other interior position along the 49ers’ defensive line.

So that leaves Armstead at the pass-rush end spot in the 49ers’ new 4-3 defense. Right now, it appears he will compete with Aaron Lynch and others for that position.

If Armstead is not capable of playing the “Leo” position up to the specifications of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, then Armstead most likely becomes a high-priced backup to Thomas and Buckner. Lynch has said he believes Armstead is capable of playing three spots along the line. It’s just a matter of finding the intersection of where he is best-suited and where he is most needed.

Armstead is in a similar position to Hyde and some other returning players. He is no longer on scholarship as a high draft pick. John Lynch and Shanahan could not care less where he was drafted. He has to show more urgency and earn his role on the team.

49ers sign six draft picks, 18 undrafted rookies

49ers sign six draft picks, 18 undrafted rookies

The 49ers on Thursday announced contract signings with their six picks selected on the final day of the draft.

The 49ers reached the mandatory four-year contract agreements with the following players:

Fourth round, No. 121: RB Joe Williams, Utah
Fifth round, No. 146: TE George Kittle, Iowa
Fifth round, No. 177: WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech
Sixth round, No. 198: DT D.J. Jones, Mississippi
Sixth round, No. 202: DE/OLB Pita Taumeopenu, Utah
Seventh round, No. 229: DB Adrian Colbert, Miami

The 49ers also announced the signings of 18 undrafted rookies to the mandatory three-year contracts:

QB Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
TE Cole Hikutini, Louisville
DB Lorenzo Jerome, Saint Francis (PA)
RB Matt Breida, Georgia Southern
OL Erik Magnuson, Michigan
WR Kendrick Bourne, Eastern Washington
OT Darrell Williams Jr., Western Kentucky
WR KD Cannon, Baylor
WR Victor Bolden, Oregon State
LB Jimmie Gilbert, Colorado
OL J.P. Flynn, Montana State
DE Noble Nwachukwu, West Virginia
LB Donavin Newsom, Missouri
OL Bret Treadway, Lamar
FB Tyler McCloskey, Houston
S Malik Golden, Penn State
OL Evan Goodman, Arizona State
DB Zach Franklin, Washburn

Lynch: 49ers will be proactive in assisting Joe Williams

Lynch: 49ers will be proactive in assisting Joe Williams

SANTA CLARA -- After months of evaluations and discussions, it took just a couple of phone calls for Utah running back Joe Williams to go from a player who did not even warrant a spot on the 49ers’ draft board to becoming a valued prospect worthy of a trade-up in the fourth round to acquire.

“The talent was undeniable, but when you hear ‘Quit the team,’ it was like ‘No, not interested,’” 49ers general manager John Lynch said.

But, just as it is in most cases, there was a lot more to this story of why Williams “retired” – or quit -- early in his final season of college football.

“I talked to his head coach, Kyle Whittingham, and Kyle said, ‘Let’s be very clear, he did not quit the team,’” Lynch said. “He physically and mentally got tired and broke down and he asked for advice on what they should do. He stepped away.”

On Saturday morning, just hours before the 49ers had to make a decision, Lynch called Williams to learn more about the person.

"I came in and I got on the phone with Joe," Lynch said. "I think it’s a wonderful story and it turned in from, 'I have no interest,' because my perception was anyone who quits a team I don’t want. And then I learned about the kid and I got a great deal of respect for how far he’s come and you mix that with the talent and it became someone we actually moved up to go secure.”

Williams remained away from the Utah team for a month. After the Utah backfield sustained some injuries, Whittingham went back to Williams and asked if he would return. Williams said he would. But Whittingham had to get approval from the remainder of the team. He was enthusiastically welcomed back.

Williams returned – and in a big way.

In the final seven games of the season Williams averaged 27 carries for 190 yards, including a 332-yard, four-touchdown performance against UCLA. He capped the season with 222 yards rushing against Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl at Levi’s Stadium.

Florida State running back Dalvin Cook was generally regarded as a first-round talent whose character concerns saw him drop to the ninth pick of the second round. Cook is 5 foot 10, 210 pounds. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 and the 20-yard shuttle in 4.53.

Williams (5-11, 210) ran a faster 40 (4.41) than Cook, while being significantly quicker in the 20-yard shuttle (4.19).

If it weren’t for Williams’ extraordinary skill as a runner, the 49ers might not have given him a second look. Coach Kyle Shanahan insisted that Lynch reconsider the decision to remove him from the 49ers’ draft board. Shanahan said he did not initially give Williams much consideration because all he knew was that he quit on the team.

“And then just on a random boring day, just watching other guys, I threw it on and watched it a little bit more and when the tape is that talented you want to look into those things a little bit more, and we did and we felt so much better about it,” Shanahan said. “When you see that overall ability, it doesn’t guarantee anything, but it means he has the ability to make all the cuts, the abilities to be a very good back in this league. Now he has to come do it and be consistent.

“After talking with him, his coaches, a lot of people who’ve known him, some of the things he’s gone through, we feel very good about the guy. We know there’s things we do need to help him with, but I think he can have a very bright future for us and for himself in the NFL.”

Shanahan said Williams’ speed, cutting ability, power and balance are as good as anybody in the draft. However, there is plenty in his background for teams to be alarmed.

He was kicked off his first college team, UConn, after being arrested for stealing a teammate’s credit card and having a backpack worth $124.90 shipped to his Pennsylvania home.

“I made that mistake with the situation with my teammate’s credit card,” Williams said. “But I learned from that and I continue to learn from my mistakes and just grow and mature. I can assure the 49ers organization and the fans that I’m a completely new person.”

In September, Williams had a difficult time coping with stress and physical ailments. He needed time to get away from the sport and come to grips with his past. Williams told Bay Area reporters he carried the guilt of his sister’s death for the past decade. On June 19, 2006, Williams’ 7-year-old sister, Kylee, passed away due to a heart condition.

“I was taking care of her to and from her bed you know, that’s when she died in my hands,” Williams said. “So just the guilt and shame that I had put upon myself, because I didn’t act quickly enough for, you know, with my parents or to call 911. I always thought that it was my fault.”

Williams said he needed time to take care of himself in September.

“And as the season started and I knew that my mental health wasn’t where it needed to be, I knew that the best option for me was to sit down in front of my wife and my coaches and just tell them where I was at,” he said. “And we came to the decision that stepping back at that time would be for my best interest, not only for football but life after football.

“I got psychiatric help to get my life back in order because at that time I was in shambles. I did a lot of soul searching.”

Williams got a tattoo on his left arm that reads, “My Sister’s Keeper.” He plans to have Kylee’s face tattooed on his shoulder, as well. He visited her grave in Pennsylvania.

“I finally forgave myself,” Williams said. “That was the biggest thing.

“She was everything. She still is everything. She’s gone now and she’s just the chip on my shoulder that I use every day, gets me up out of the bed.”

Lynch said the 49ers will fully support Williams and provide all the resources he might need to continue to cope with the traumatic event of his childhood.

“We’re going to be very proactive -- not just with him, with all our players and in particular the rookies to support them in every way,” Lynch said. “It’s something that Joe and I talked about. ‘I know you’ve addressed it, but are you comfortable with us reassessing things, where you’re at and then from there gathering a plan?’ He indicated that’s what he wants. That’s what we’ll do.”