With so much uncertainty surrounding when the NFL season will start because of the coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen when Williams will play in his next one.
Which is why, after the Niners traded a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-round pick to the Washington Redskins for Williams on Saturday, neither side is in a rush for Williams to sign a contract extension as retired left tackle Joe Staley’s long-term replacement.
As of now, Williams is expected to play out the final year of his current contract with the Niners.
“I think the plan was to land him right now and then let the rest kind of work itself out,” general manager John Lynch said. “I think it’s always an advantage when you get someone in the building, on your roster. Now you’ve got a chance. We’ll get a really good look at him. We’ll see where the rest of our team is at, but right now we are just ecstatic that we were able to pull it off at a really opportune time.
“You’re losing a great player like Joe at a very critical position, to be able to have everything line up that he was available right then and for us to be able to land him, I think very fortuitous for us, and we’re very excited about that.”
As recently as Lynch’s pre-draft conference call with the Bay Area media on Monday, he and coach Kyle Shanahan were holding out hope that Staley would return to his usual spot at left tackle for a 14th season.
Lynch told reporters then that he was encouraged that Staley would return but made it clear that Staley had not yet committed to coming back. Within hours after that media session, Lynch spoke to Ryan Tollner, Staley’s agent, and got word that Staley was struggling to make a decision.
In the next day or so after that, Shanahan spoke to Staley, who let the coach know that he was confident in his decision to walk away from the NFL after 13 seasons. Once that message was relayed, the Niners turned their focus to landing Williams and discussed offensive tackle possibilities in the draft.
“It was very cool for Joe to be that honest with us before the draft because that allowed John and I to really think about it and see if any of those tackles would become available,” Shanahan said. “But that wasn’t totally in the plans because we were hoping Joe would be around here for the next couple years, and unfortunately it didn’t work out that way, so it was really cool that we were able to pull off what we did.”
By the time the 49ers were on the clock with the 13th pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, they still hadn’t completed a deal for Williams, as Lynch received word from Redskins coach Ron Rivera that there was other interest.
Despite not having the deal finalized, the Niners elected to roll the dice and forge ahead with their plan to draft defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw after moving down one spot in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That trade came with highly regarded Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs still available. Lynch said Wirfs was a player the Niners were “extremely fond of,” but the team wanted to follow through on its plan to land Kinlaw to replace DeForest Buckner knowing that getting Williams was still a possibility.
Furthering their risk, the 49ers had made West Virginia offensive tackle Colton McKivitz their target to help replace Staley with the fourth-round pick they acquired from the Bucs in the trade down from No. 13 to No. 14. They dealt that pick to the Minnesota Vikings in a trade up later Thursday night for Arizona State receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
Suddenly, all their eggs were in the Williams basket.
“We felt like even though we were assuming some risk without the Trent Williams thing being done, that was a risk we were willing to take,” Lynch said.
While sitting out the proceedings with no picks on Friday, the Niners intensified talks with the Redskins about a trade, with Rivera telling Lynch to wait one more day as he assessed various offers.
On Saturday morning, the deal was finalized. Shanahan got on the phone with his new left tackle soon after, catching up with the player he helped draft with the fourth pick in the 2010 NFL draft as Washington’s offensive coordinator.
And while some reconfiguring of Williams’ contract — he’s slated to count $12.5 million against this year’s salary cap — could still come, Shanahan believes that Williams, a seven-time Pro Bowler, is ready to reestablish himself as one of the game’s best left tackles and earn a deal that goes with that lofty status.
“Trent has been out of football for a year and a half, and Trent made it clear to everyone he wants to come back and didn’t want to do a deal right away,” Shanahan said. “He wanted to play and try to get back into it and see where he was at with the rest of the league and pick up where he left off. That’s one of the reasons we were able to get him and get him for what we did. I think it really helped us in the situation we were in.”