Most San Francisco 49ers fans expect 2016 starter Carlos Hyde to be the 2017 starting running back, but don’t count out Joe Williams just yet.
Entering the 2017 offseason training schedule, most San Francisco 49ers fans expect Carlos Hyde to runaway as the team’s Week 1 starter (no pun intended). However, they should pump their brakes on that assumption.
First things first, Hyde is an excellent running back who brings excellent power, sudden burst, balance and great feet. He is more than capable of locking up the starting spot.
And yet, the 49ers signed free agent running back Tim Hightower and drafted Utah Utes running back Joe Williams. Hightower is a competent backup who can deliver in the running game, but his biggest value comes on third downs when he can come in and catch the ball out of the backfield.
However, Hightower has never been a premier starting running back. And at the age of 30 he is certainly not the longterm answer. This is exactly why the team drafted Williams. Williams has the athletic upside to challenge Hyde from Day 1 of OTAs.
Taken in the fourth round with 121st overall pick, Williams is a quintessential Kyle Shanahan late-round running back choice. The first thing that anyone will notice with Williams is that Williams is a speed demon. At the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, Williams posted a 4.41 40-yard dash per NFL.com.
His quicks are not only clear in shorts; throw on the film and you can see that Williams speed shows up on the field. He has play after play in which he displays the ability to get behind the secondary and simply pull away for a long run.
What makes Williams’ speed special is that he isn’t just fast in a straight line. Williams has explosive lateral quickness, which transitions into his straight-line running without reducing any speed. The clip below is a perfect example of this in action. In addition, Williams also demonstrates his ability to see defenders using his peripheral vision while pressing the line.
Finally, one of his best skills can be found in the next clip. You can see Williams get “skinny” as he squirms through the closing gap. More importantly, he does not lose any speed, power or balance as explodes through diminishing hole. Instead, he powers through a tackler and out runs the entire defense for a touchdown.
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Williams has a fantastic chance of coming into camp and impressing from Day 1. Unlike Hyde, Williams brings a one-cut ability with the speed to take it to the house. His ability to explode through the smallest running lanes will give him an advantage over Hyde.
Remember, Hyde has zero ties to the current coaching or personnel staff. They have no reason to make him the starter. If Williams shows from next week’s OTAs on through training camp that he is a better scheme fit than “El Guapo”, then expect him to take over as the Week 1 starter.
Oct 11, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde (28) carries the ball as New York Giants outside linebacker Mark Herzlich (94) defends during the third quarter at MetLife Stadium. The Giants won 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Jim O’Connor-USA TODAY Sports
Of course, Hyde is no slouch. Hyde is a beast-of-a-back in his own right. While Williams displays power, it is not in the same class when you consider Hyde’s running style. Hyde may not have breakaway speed but he certainly has the brute force to break tackles.
Where Williams is a cheetah, Hyde is a rhinoceros looking to plow through folks in the most violent way possible. In fact, Hyde’s running style is his own downfall, causing him to miss entire weeks from the regular season due to injury.
Still, Hyde has proven to be successful in both power/gap running schemes and zone running schemes. There is no reason to think that he will not be able to succeed in Shanahan’s outside-zone running scheme.
Furthermore, Williams has some major flaws that he will need to fix before he can become a full-time starter. For one, he is not the best at pass-blocking. To beat out Hyde, Williams will need to show that he can hang in there consistently.
Another area of improvement for Williams will be his pass-catching ability. While with the Utah Utes, Williams dropped 5-of-27 pass attempts, per Pro Football Focus. He also fumbled at an alarming rate. According to NFL.com, Williams fumbled six times on 289 carries.
Check out this example of Williams being knocked over easily as a linebacker comes in for a blitz. Williams needs to stay on his feet so that he can continue to block his assignment.
In the end, Hyde’s ability to run hard, decisively and limit putting the ball on the ground will help edge out the rookie. Other skills that will edge out Williams will be Hyde’s ability to pass block and catch consistently.
Hyde will start the season as the Week 1 starter barring any disastrous injury in camp. Yet, expecting Hyde to play a full season injury free is asking too much from an extremely physical runner. It is more likely that Hyde will suffer an injury that will pull him from the starting 53, placing Williams into the starting lineup.