SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Barring a setback in the next few days, the San Francisco 49ers are expected to welcome back one of their biggest and most important players in time for Sunday's NFC wildcard showdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
Left tackle Trent Williams, who has been recovering from a sprained right elbow for the past couple of weeks, returned to practice Thursday. An while he was officially listed as a limited participant, all signs point to him being ready to play in Dallas.
"The elbow is doing good," Williams said. "It's made a lot of improvement over the last week or so. I practiced today. I felt pretty good."
Williams did not practice on Wednesday but coach Kyle Shanahan had remained optimistic this week that the star left tackle would be able to get back to a point he could play against the Cowboys. Williams went through Thursday's practice with a special tape job on the elbow, something he said he prefers over a bulkier brace.
That Williams returned on Thursday bodes especially well since it's the 49ers' most strenuous practice day. It's also a far cry from last week, when Williams said he knew all along it was unlikely he'd play against the Los Angeles Rams but held out hope all the way up until the hours before the game.
"I knew going last week was a bit of a shot in the dark," Williams said. "Obviously with the season being where it was, I couldn't give up on myself early in the week so I just thought I'd give it to the very last second to see if I could make any breakthroughs or get any better to see if I could push through it. I did that and it didn't work but we kind of knew that though. We knew that one week of rest was probably not enough and I just prayed we could get a second week in and we were able to."
Indeed, San Francisco's 27-24 victory against the Rams secured them a playoff spot and bought Williams additional time to heal.
Williams initially injured the elbow on the sixth play of a Jan. 2 win against the Houston Texans. He played through the injury that day until the Niners pulled away late, but knew something was amiss.
"I definitely didn't think it was a good time for me to miss any time so I just gritted through it and I paid the price later," Williams said.
Colton McKivitz replaced Williams against the Rams but is likely to return to a backup role this week against the Cowboys. Getting Williams back is particularly important for the Niners given Dallas' pass-rushing trio of Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons, a group Williams said, "makes that defense go."
Williams finished the regular season with a pass rush win rate of 92.3%, which was ninth in the NFL, and did not allow a sack, according to ESPN's tracking of blocking data.
"He's the best football player I've ever played with, so it's very helpful," tight end George Kittle said of Williams' impending return. "Huge Trent Williams fan, love playing with him, love blocking with him, it makes my life a lot easier. He makes everybody's life a lot easier... Trent, like a little bit hurt is still better than I think almost everybody in the NFL regardless of position. So, having him back has a huge impact for us and will allow us to do a lot more things in the run and pass game."