SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- After 13 distinguished years at left tackle, Joe Staley retired on April 25, leaving the San Francisco 49ers trying to answer a difficult question: How do you replace a franchise legend?
But as luck -- and a whole lot of patience -- would have it, the Niners pivoted quickly from Staley's retirement and acquired tackle Trent Williams on the final day of the 2020 NFL draft in a trade with the Washington Redskins.
"I don't know how different it's going to look because you replace a Hall of Famer with another Hall of Famer," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "I think the best thing that Trent adds is we are not going to lose the production of a Hall of Fame left tackle. I think that's the coolest thing about this whole situation and what Joe did to make sure that we were OK at the 49ers after he made his decision official, we don't have a drop off. We replaced one of the best tackles in the NFL with another one of the best tackles in the NFL."
Indeed, while the 49ers said goodbye to Staley, a six-time Pro Bowler and one of four tackles on the NFL's All Decade team for the 2010s, they just might have landed a tackle in Williams who is every bit as good, if not better. The Williams-Niners marriage always made plenty of sense but required both sides to exercise plenty of patience.
For Williams, it meant more than a year of waiting for the trade he requested as Washington sought compensation it felt was appropriate. For the Niners, it meant waiting all offseason for Staley to make a decision and then, once he decided to retire, waiting until the third day of the draft to consummate a trade with the Redskins even as they passed on other potential Staley replacements such as Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs in the first round.
Williams was widely regarded as one of the league's best and most athletic tackles before more than a year away from football because of a dispute with the Redskins over his health and contract.
Since coming into the league as the No. 4 overall pick in 2010, Williams has racked up seven Pro Bowl appearances and was a second-team All Pro in 2015. From 2013 to 2018, Williams averaged a rank of eighth from Pro Football Focus among the leagues' 80-plus tackles, including No. 1 rankings in 2013 and 2016.
As Washington's offensive coordinator when the Redskins drafted Williams, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan knows exactly what he's getting in his new left tackle, and it isn't just talent that makes him a fit.
"Skill set wise, Trent is similar to Joe," Shanahan said. "I mean, they're two of the most athletic guys that I have ever been around at that position, and they can run and are great for our scheme. He's a great dude, too. I love the guy, and I was able to talk him today for the first time in a while and congratulate him. I know it's been a while for him going through the situation he has for the last year and a half. I know he's very fresh and is hungry and eager to get back to football as anyone I've ever talked to. Also, knowing the guy, I can tell how passionate he is about it."
Of course, the question for Williams isn't so much about ability as it is about getting back to where he was before his extended absence.
Williams spent his year off training. He believed he would be moved at last season's trade deadline and was prepared to join a new team part way through the season. When that didn't happen, he retreated to his home and kept tabs on what was going on around the league. That included watching plenty of Niners games, an experience Williams described as watching "an extended part of the family" because of his familiarity with Shanahan and his staff.
While Williams studied the league, he also struggled with being away from the game he loved. Williams hasn't played in an NFL game since Dec. 30, 2018. When his dispute with the Redskins began he was still in his prime, but it's reasonable to think he will have some rust to knock off upon his return.
Before his trade to the Niners, Williams spent time in Houston working out with Washington running back Adrian Peterson at a gym the two own together. Viral videos on social media showed Williams casually squatting 585 pounds and performing box jumps with relative ease.
Williams believes he is uniquely qualified to succeed after an offseason erased by the coronavirus pandemic. He believes fresh legs, a new perspective and a deep knowledge of Shanahan's offense will make his learning curve "lot shorter."
"Under regular circumstances I think it would be extremely challenging," Williams said. "I think it would be next to impossible to be as effective as you want to be without having a proper offseason. Being in this case, that I literally can go line up in their huddle and go run a play today, that's how familiar I am with the offense."
But stepping in for Staley is no easy task for any player, even one as accomplished as Williams. Which is why Williams has no intention of trying to emulate Staley in any capacity other than where his name is listed on the depth chart.
"I don't really feel any pressure," Williams said. "His legacy is his legacy. I have my own and I have got to work on mine, and I feel like me being the best me is doing the best I can to kind of carry a torch, so that's all I can really focus on.
"He's one of those guys that you just kind of get used to not being there and it takes some time, and just not having that face in the locker room takes some getting used to. But you don't really replace him. You just kind of learn to live without him. Hopefully I can just make that a little easier."