Marcio Jose Sanchez-AP

Marcio Jose Sanchez-AP



49ers training camp is nearly here, and with it comes the opportunity for coaches, media, and fans alike to assess the team's roster. Over the next three days, I'll name the three players I believe are the most important to the growth of the team moving forward. I'll make my case for each selection and what their performances could mean to the 49ers in the future.

We'll start with my choice for the third most important player for the 49ers' rise back to relevance: Joe Williams. To be clear, running back is not the most important position in the offense. The most important positions in any offense tend to be quarterback and left tackle. Here's the thing: neither of those positions are being developed for the future right now, for completely opposite reasons.

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The 49ers have Joe Staley at left tackle. He is already the established starter, and he is already very good. There is no question that he is an equally adept pass protector and run blocker, who has elite athleticism for the position to stay in front of an opponent's best pass rusher and to execute the difficult reach block demanded of him in an outside zone offense. Staley will be great in this offense until he chooses to retire, and I think he'll stick around for a few years to be a part of the 49ers returning to championship contention.

Brian Hoyer is the 49ers quarterback this year, and it is a long shot that he'll be their quarterback three years from now. His experience in Kyle Shanahan's offense makes him a useful tool in evaluating the skill positions across the rest of the offense, but he has done little in his career to this point to suggest that the 49ers should stop looking for the long-term answer at quarterback. I'd be surprised if he heads into the 2018 season without competition for the position.

The running game has to be effective for Shanahan's offense to function at peak performance. His painstaking efforts to ensure that many of his pass plays are initially indistinguishable from his run plays will only keep a defense off balance if the run and pass are equally threatening. More than many other offenses in the NFL, the 49ers will place great importance on their ground game. So, why Joe Williams? It's unlikely he will start at running back when the season opens, but he fits the offense well, and both Kyle Shanahan and the Shanahan family's legendary running back coach, Bobby Turner, stood on the table for him in the draft room. Williams is a decisive one-cut runner with uncommon burst and top end speed for a back his size. He is a home run threat, and he is also capable of running behind his pads to grind out tough yards inside.

Unquestionably, the starting running back role is Carlos Hyde's job to lose, but Hyde is in a contract year, and his immense talent is mired with questions about consistent production and reliable durability. If Hyde has a great year, the 49ers would have to pay a steep price to keep him, which would not likely fit the pay structure in a Shanahan offense that might have to stretch to fit a record-breaking quarterback salary next spring, should Kirk Cousins finally shake free of Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen in Washington. If Hyde struggles, his price tag would be lower, but the 49ers would likely want to move on to a younger, more productive option. Carlos Hyde's future with the 49ers beyond 2017 depends less upon his own production and more upon the performance of Joe Williams.

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If Williams can accurately read the bounce/bang/bend options presented to him in each outside zone run quickly and make decisive, full speed cuts upfield, he could make Hyde unnecessary. He has the speed to threaten the edges of the defense when he bounces the play, and he has the agility/power combination that Shanahan seeks when he describes backs who can create and run through arm tackles.

Williams might not be proficient yet as an NFL pass protector, but the presence of Tim Hightower as a third down back could allow Williams time to develop his skills in blitz pickup, as well as route running and catching.

Williams will get his opportunities to impress this year. Unlike his father, Mike, Kyle doesn't usually identify one adept runner and feed him a staggering volume of carries. Given the talent, Kyle has shown a preference to divide his carries between two backs, and Williams will almost certainly be one of those backs this year. If the 49ers' run game stays as effective with Williams in the game, and the threat of his big play ability keeps opposing linebackers overreacting to his run fakes in play action, Williams will likely be the 49ers' featured runner in 2018 and beyond.