There was a clear and considerable contributing factor to three straight defeats for the San Francisco 49ers between Week 6 and Week 8 of their 2023 season: injuries to wide receiver Deebo Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams.
Consistently the first players out of the tunnel, bouncing and head-bobbing their way to the field to the bombastic sounds emanating from the trademark boombox the 49ers take with them to games, the Niners severely missed their presence after both were injured in the Week 6 loss to the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco’s first of the season. Samuel was injured on the first play and, while Williams battled through an ankle injury, he missed the subsequent losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals.
With the benefit of a Week 9 bye, both players returned for Week 10 and helped spark a winning streak that, at the time of writing, stands at five games, giving San Francisco top spot in the NFC at 10-3.
Samuel’s influence is obvious to everyone. An ultra-versatile receiver whose prowess carrying the ball as a de facto running back in 2021 led him to be described as a ‘wide back’, he puts tremendous strain on defenses when motioning to and from various points in the formation before the snap and is utterly devastating with the ball in his hands, fuelling a plethora of explosive plays with his ability to break through tackles and into the open field. Samuel is a player who can turn a five-yard pass into a 50-yard gain, but Williams’ influence on the offense is arguably even more significant.
The offensive line can be a challenging area of NFL rosters for even the most ardent of observers to evaluate. Few outside of those who have played or coached the position truly understand the nuances of what it takes to be a great offensive linemen, yet there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Williams is the gold standard at the left tackle spot, long since regarded as the most important in the trenches, in 2023.
San Francisco traded for Williams during the 2020 NFL Draft, sending a third-round pick and a fifth-round selection to Washington after the retirement of the Niners’ long-time mainstay at the position, Joe Staley.
That price looked extraordinarily cheap at the time and now looks like daylight robbery. Williams has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons with San Francisco and was a first-team All-Pro in 2021 and 2022.
In his 14th year in the league, he is on track to earn such recognition again. As of Week 14, Williams was one of five tackles not to have allowed a single sack and was the sixth-ranked player at his position in run blocking by Pro Football Focus.
Yet at one point there was doubt in Williams’ mind that he would re-establish himself as the best tackle in the NFL. In October 2019, Williams revealed he had surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his head that he first discovered in 2013, when he was misinformed that it was not serious. After spending the 2019 season on various injury lists, Williams got a fresh start with the trade to San Francisco.
Speaking exclusively back in September, Williams conceded to doubts about whether he would return to his best having gone to the Pro Bowl for seven straight seasons prior to that saga.
“Yeah of course [there was doubt], just going through the diagnosis, going through the rehab. Once I got on the other side of the diagnosis, I had no question that I could return to where I thought I should be,” Williams said.
“But it made me work a little harder because there was an element of ‘I don’t know’, I never had this much time away from football. So you know, I could come back and not be the same player, without a shadow of a doubt. But my common sense told me that, you know, I should be okay.”
Starved of success in Washington, Williams has played in the last two NFC Championship Games for the 49ers, though between a first year with the team — played during the pandemic — in which their season was devastated by injuries, and the constant questions at the quarterback position that have finally been ended by Brock Purdy’s emergence, Williams has seen a lot of ups and downs with San Francisco.
How has he stayed level-headed through everything he has experienced in his career?
“Because it’s always happening, if that can easily sway the way you feel every day, you will be all over the place,” said Williams. “It’s the NFL, at the end of the day it’s a business so people come and go, things happen it’s not fair, never said it was fair, never guaranteed that it would be fair, it’s not fair but it’s everybody’s dream, you just roll with the punches.”
It’s perhaps easier to have that sense of composure when you can perform at the levels Williams reaches week in and week out.
An outstanding pass blocker who consistently faces the NFL’s best pass rushers one-on-one and wins, Williams’ game tape is perhaps the closest you will get to a highlight reel for an offensive lineman, though that in large part owes to how he complements his pass protection work with some truly devastating play in open space as a run blocker.
Williams is able to move with an ease that should not be possible for a man of his 6ft 5in and 320-pound frame, his remarkable athleticism making him a nightmare for opponents trying to defend a San Francisco run game heavily reliant on Williams and his fellow linemen either pulling around the edge and taking out defensive backs or quickly surging to the second level of the defense to erase linebackers from the equation.
The 35-year-old does both magnificently and often with awesome brutality but, according to Williams, there is no secret sauce that has allowed to be so dominant at one of the most notoriously difficult positions in the game.
Asked why he’s had such success over a likely Hall of Fame career, he replied: “Experience. I think the biggest thing for me was being told as a rookie that l’ll be going against some Hall of Famers and I won’t be getting any help, Demarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney guys like that.
“So I look at that and I thank God for that now because the experience and time, it made me grow up because the learning curve put a lot on my plate. I think now in year 14, that experience from 14 years ago and obviously every year since then, I feel like it gives me an advantage sometimes. There ain’t a lot of people that were forced to hear that.”
Yet, as his predecessor Staley explained, WIlliams doesn’t simply take for granted that his experience will enable him to have success.
Speaking exclusively, Staley said: “One of the things I was always frustrated with when he was in Washington was that he made everything look so easy because he was such an absolute freak. I actually hated watching his film because it was like ‘I can’t take anything from his game to apply to my own because I can’t do the things that he does’.
“Getting a chance to spend time with him and see how he sees the game when he did come to the 49ers and realising how much actual attention to detail he does spend, not only understanding the scheme but also making sure that he’s dialled in to what we’re doing offensively, he’s working on his craft consistently throughout the week of practice, he’s a true professional and I think those little things he does technically are what separates him from really being a guy that’s athletically gifted to being one of the all-time greats at the position.”
All that being said, there are plays when Williams, because of the immense knowledge he has gained over the course of his career, knows he is poised to make his opponents look foolish.
“I know by certain looks, and certain play calls that, you know, I should be able to get my job done pretty easily,” said Williams. “Certain looks I know, like, ‘damn, it’s gonna be tough to get this job done with what I’m being presented with’.
“But that’s just as we talk about the offensive line, especially in this offense, every scheme, every play, somebody along that offensive line has to wear the big hat is what we call it, somebody’s block is a little bit more important than somebody else’s. So when it’s my turn to wear a big hat, I just try to make sure that they can lean on me.”
He has continually achieved that goal during his time with San Francisco, with Staley extremely grateful he was able to pass the torch onto somebody of such dependability.
“It was really important to me when I retired that they weren’t left with a hole there at that left tackle position,” added Staley. “So I was ecstatic when they were able to get that trade done and bring Trent there and I know the franchise is excited as well to have him out there because having someone to cover the quarterback’s blindside is vital to a successful offense.”
The 49ers will be able to lean on Williams for at least three more seasons, as he is signed through the 2026 campaign, but he isn’t ruling out extending his career well beyond the life of his current contract.
Retirement questions have regularly been put to Williams, but hanging up the cleats is clearly well at the back of his mind.
“I’m blessed to get to the point where I don’t even have to think about it no more,” said Williams.
“After 14 years I’m not thinking about, ‘am I going to make it to 16’. I might even be here 21 years, who knows? At this point, I feel good, I’m not putting an expiration date on nothing. As long as I feel the way I feel, I can’t see an end in sight no time soon. I could play into my 40s, I’m still athletic enough to do so. When I do slow down I think I’ll still be pretty athletic for an offensive lineman, I don’t really look towards the end too much.”
The only finish line Williams is focused on is the one in Las Vegas at Super Bowl 58 in February and his ability to continue to impose his will on opponents while wearing ‘the big hat’ will be critical to him and the 49ers putting on championship caps at Allegiant Stadium.