The San Francisco 49ers got some pleasant news on the injury front for once. Ian Williams, who had been on the injured list since breaking his ankle in Week 2 of the 2013 season against the Seattle Seahawks, was activated on Tuesday, allowing him to practice with the team for the first time this preseason.
Williams has had a long and tortured road back to active status. He had four different leg surgeries to repair the damage to his ankle, and both Williams and the team wanted to make sure he was fully healthy before subjecting him to the rigors of playing nose tackle.
“I have two guys, at times, pushing on me, so I have different angles I got to hold 700 pounds sometimes. So I want to make sure my ankle is as close to 100 as possible,” Williams said earlier this offseason, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com.
With Glenn Dorsey out for an extended period of time recovering from a torn bicep, this is great news for the 49ers. Williams beat Dorsey for the starting role last year, and while it would of course be preferable to have both players on the line, having at least one starting-caliber player healthy is a boon.
So, 49ers fans can stop worrying about the nose tackle position, right? Well, not so fast.
Just because Williams is activated doesn’t mean he’ll be ready to go right off of the bat. In the short term, at least, I expect him to join Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, who have sat out large portions of this offseason recovering from their own injuries. That’s the entire starting defensive line that hasn't been seen much.
In the preseason, of course, that’s a boon of its own. It means that players like Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine have been getting extra reps, and that experience can only help their development. The 49ers finished their last preseason game with only four healthy linemen after Lawrence Okoye and Demarcus Dobbs were hurt, so Dial, Jerod-Eddie, Carradine and Mike Purcell got plenty of playing time against the Baltimore Ravens.
For the regular season, however, that’s a problem. Smith and McDonald both returned to action on Wednesday, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Williams needs a little more time to get into game shape.
Matt Barrows tweeted that the 49ers' standard operating procedure has been to ease players coming back from major injuries into the lineup. They usually have them take part in walkthroughs first, with full-contact practices only coming later.
Just from the timing, that essentially rules Williams out of Sunday’s preseason game against the Denver Broncos—there’s almost no chance Williams would have enough comfort with contact to suit up in a competitive situation that quickly. The earliest we would likely see him would be the week after against San Diego, in the third “dress rehearsal” preseason game. Even then, I doubt he would have built up the stamina to play a full game so soon after coming back.
When the 49ers open the season Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, I’d still expect Quinton Dial to be the starter at nose tackle. Obviously the 49ers want Williams back as soon as possible, but the worst thing they could do would be to rush him back before he’s fully healthy.
By taking him off of the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, however, the 49ers are tipping that Williams will be back sooner rather than later. If Williams had remained on PUP throughout training camp, he could not have been activated until Week 7 against Denver. By activating him now, the 49ers are saying they expect him to be ready sometime in the first six weeks of the season.
If I had to guess, I’d say Williams will sit out the Dallas game, play in a rotation against the Chicago Bears in Levi’s Stadium’s opener in Week 2, and then resume full-time nose tackle work against the Arizona Cardinals the next week, assuming there were no setbacks.
Williams joins NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith as starters who will almost assuredly miss time at the beginning of the season. This means, early on at least, you could see the 49ers struggle compared to their normal high standards. While they have interesting replacements at all three positions, having three starters sitting out is never ideal.
There is a silver lining to this cloud, however, come playoff time.
Williams, Bowman and Smith will have less wear-and-tear on them than your normal NFL player will, because they’ll have played in fewer games. This might translate into fresher legs and better stamina going deep into January—at the very least, it implies that the 49ers defense will finish the season stronger than it began it.
When you look at the 49ers' schedule, you’ll note it’s very front-loaded. The last six weeks do feature both matches against Seattle, but from a travel perspective, it’s insanely light—the only two road trips in that stretch are to Seattle and Oakland. It’s not unrealistic to think the 49ers could be expected to go 5-1 down the stretch, splitting the series with Seattle and holding serve at home and away against Oakland.
If you assume they will go 5-1—and you can’t actually do that, as anything can happen in the NFL; it’s just useful from a thought-experiment point of view—then all they need to do is play .500 ball in the other 10 matchups to have a fairly safe shot at making the playoffs.
Even without Williams, Bowman and Smith, this is a better-than-.500 defense. As long as they can keep their heads above water through the first half of November, the 49ers are positioned to go on a hot streak at the end of the season and carry that momentum into a postseason run.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.