Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports


Is Trent Williams Potentially an Upgrade From Joe Staley for the 49ers?

May 22, 2020 at 8:00 AM


For the last 13 years, Joe Staley has protected the quarterback's blind side for the San Francisco 49ers. He did this at an extremely high level as he was widely considered one of the best left tackles in the NFL for the better part of the last decade. However, as the old cliché goes, all good things must come to an end and the big man decided to hang 'em up about a month ago.

Staley will be putting on a gold jacket in about five years, making it difficult for San Francisco to find a comparable successor. However, head coach Kyle Shanahan was able to use his previous relationships to help the 49ers land another future Hall of Famer, Trent Williams. Given both players' pedigree, the question arises did the Red and Gold potentially upgrade at the position?

To find an answer, we'll take a look at Staley's and Williams' accolades, pass-protecting and run-blocking production. I'll place more weight on what each player has done in recent years when forming my conclusion, since looking at what happened five or ten years ago doesn't give an accurate depiction of who's better at the current moment.

Accolades


One good measure of how successful an offensive lineman has been is to look at how many awards he has won and how many "All-Star" teams he has been named to. Are accolades the end-all-be-all? No, but with the limited amount of data and statistics at the position, they're a good starting point.

In his 13-year career, Staley managed to make the Pro Bowl roster about half of the time. He had an impressive seven-year run, making the team every season from 2011 to 2015, and after a brief absence in 2016, he was back on the squad in 2017.

Meanwhile, Williams has basically owned real-estate in Hawaii - technically Orlando now too - as he's been a Pro Bowler in seven out of ten career seasons. The only times the former Redskin failed to make the team were his first and second years in the league, and last season, when he didn't even play. Who knows if he would have continued his streak in 2019, but history doesn't suggest otherwise.

Pivoting to All-Pro selections is where the predecessor has a slight advantage over his replacement. Staley earned second-team selections from the Associated Press three times (2011-2013), twice from Pro Football Focus (2012 and 2017), and one first-team selection from the Pro Football Writers of America in 2013. Whereas Williams received second-team honors from PFF in 2013 and the AP in 2015, and first-team honors from PFF in 2016, and twice from Sporting News in 2016 and 2017.

Pass Protection


Since Staley was banged up for just about all of last season and Williams didn't play, so we'll go back and look at how each of them performed in 2017 and 2018 to give a more apples to apples comparison.

Two years ago, G.I. Joe posted a PFF pass-blocking grade of 83.8 while surrendering a mere 25 pressures. During the same season, the former Redskin earned an 80.7 grade and allowed 30 pressures. Taking a look at the rate each player was responsible for the quarterback being under duress favors Staley even more, as he "lost" on about 4.1 percent of his pass-blocking snaps while Williams recorded a rate of about 6.1 percent.

The 2017 season was a closer battle between the two but still favored the recent retiree. Staley's grade was 85.2 that year and he gave up 24 pressures, while Williams posted respectable numbers of 81.9 and 17. Obviously, the grades and total pressures don't add up but that can be accounted for in the number of opportunities as the rates slightly favor the former, about 3.9 percent compared to 4.5 percent for the latter.

Run Blocking


Continuing with the theme of recent performances, we'll again look at the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Run-blocking appears to be another area where Staley has been superior to Williams. In the two years mentioned above, the former 49er registered PFF run-blocking grades of 79.9 and 85.2, while his replacement posted grades of 69.9 and 77.6. The good news for San Francisco and its new left tackle is Williams' best season as a run blocker came in 2013 when Shananah was his offensive coordinator, and he recorded a grade of 88.9. Hopefully, the reunion will rejuvenate the offensive lineman and help him replicate his dominant performance from seven years ago.

Especially without a hard statistic, there's some subjectivity when it comes to evaluating a lineman's performance in the ground game. To combat this, we'll take a look at another source, Football Outsiders, and see how those numbers align.

In 2018, Washington ranked 20th in adjusted line yards (definition can be found here) on rushes around the left end, and 24th on attempts behind the left tackle. Meanwhile, San Francisco ranked ninth and eighth in those categories, respectively. The gap was even wider the previous year as the Redskins ranked 16th and 28th, and the 49ers finished in fifth and sixth place.

Granted, that's not a perfect statistic to compare two players since multiple outside variables come into play. However, the combination of the Pro Football Focus grades and the numbers from Football Outsiders indicate that Staley has been a superior run-blocker in recent years.

Conclusion


To answer the question of if the 49ers upgraded at left tackle, it's a resounding no. Staley has outperformed Williams in every significant category when it comes to offensive line play in the last few seasons. However, that doesn't change the fact that San Francisco is getting a top-tier player to replace a future Hall of Famer. Who knows, maybe taking last season off will do the big man some good and the Red and Gold won't even notice a difference.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • PJNiner
    I disagree with the conclusion. Staley was not what he used to be the last couple years. He would have a few plays every game where he got beat badly. As they like to say In the NFL the most important ability is availability, and Staley’s body was breaking down so he was not available a lot last year. I think just the age factor and being available for more games makes Williams a definite upgrade. Now if we were comparing Staley from a few years ago when he was still making Pro Bowls to Williams now, maybe Staley has the edge.The subtraction of Sanders is a big blow, but Shanahan will figure out a way to keep it rolling. Let’s hope Jimmy takes a Matt Ryan type of leap in his 2nd year along with Bosa. If Hurd, Taylor, and Jet can stay healthy this offense will be even scarier than it was last year.
    May 22, 2020 at 1:28 PM
    1

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