American Football

Why the 49ers are unlikely to take on Jonah Williams as a reclamation project


NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The opportunity is not worth the cost and the hassle.

Jonah Williams made two things pretty clear with his trade request from the Bengals. One, he obviously doesn’t want to play for the Bengals anymore. Two, he does not want to play right tackle.

The Bengals want to get their best five offensive linemen on the field following their signing of Orlando Brown Jr. to play left tackle. That means Williams is faced with the prospect of competing with La’El Collins to play right tackle, though Collins does have experience playing guard.

Cincinnati could cut Collins and save a little over $6 million against the cap, according to Spotrac.

But Williams does not appear willing to wait and see if that move comes to pass, asking Cincinnati to make him available, seemingly solely for teams who want to use him at left tackle.

That is categorically not the 49ers, who have the best left tackle in football in Trent Williams.

But could the Niners be motivated to strike a deal with Cincinnati and convince the 2019 first-round pick out of Alabama to play right tackle for them?

A more compelling case for a switch

It may seem a pointless question on the surface given Williams’ desire to play on the left but, for a team that lacks an experienced starter at right tackle following Mike McGlinchey’s exit in free agency, it is one worth asking, largely because San Francisco may have a more convincing case for him playing on the right than Cincinnati.

Assuming for the sake of argument that Collins remains on the Bengals’ roster, Williams would have a much trickier fight for a starting role at a position that is not his preferred one than he would with the Niners, who right now would be starting Colton McKivitz at right tackle.

McKivitz has proven a valuable swing tackle for the 49ers over the last two seasons and was signed to a two-year extension, but he is unproven as a starter. The Niners are hoping the 2020 fifth-round pick becomes the latest testament to their ability to develop offensive linemen following the strides made by starting guards Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford, but a player of Williams’ pedigree would surely bet on himself to beat out McKivitz.

In terms of transitioning to right tackle, it would be a case of short-term pain for long-term gain for Williams. Produce a season of strong play in an offense that possesses foundational similarities to that of Cincinnati, prove his versatility in the process, and prepare to cash in on the open market in 2024.

That, along with getting to play for a contending team, is the appeal from Williams’ side, but what is in it for the Niners?

Another OL reclamation

It is a fair question. Williams has predominantly struggled to justify his status as a first-round pick when playing left tackle, and they would be giving up draft capital for what would amount to a one-year rental, but he does project as a fit for San Francisco’s attack.

Cincinnati runs a lot of inside and outside zone on the ground, but the Bengals have recently infused a lot more gap scheme runs – particularly duo – into their offense. Sound familiar?

So in Williams, the Niners would be acquiring a tackle who would likely need little time to adapt to the offense, and who at 25 is younger than the 26-year-old McKivitz but has more experience.

Having already turned one former first-round offensive lineman from a draft bust to a reliable starter after acquiring Laken Tomlinson in 2017 – Tomlinson started at left guard until leaving at the end of the 2021 season – Williams would give the Niners another potential reclamation project whom they could re-sign in 2024 when the salary cap is expected to rise once again.

The stumbling block in any potential trade discussions is likely to be the cost. Not necessarily trade compensation, but Williams’ salary. Williams’ base salary is $12.6 million in 2023 and the 49ers are $7.9 million under the cap.

San Francisco is known for its creativity when it comes to contracts, so the 49ers probably would be able to find a way to fit Williams onto the books, but between the trade price and that headache, it is a lot of hassle to take on for a player who is far from a sure thing. There are no such complications and added cost with McKivitz.

There’s evidence to suggest the 49ers could successfully rehabilitate Williams’ career, but they will instead likely continue to mold an in-house player they seem to believe can blossom into a dependable starting right tackle.

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