Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams were in the same boat for most of 2011.
Docked in the Bay Area as members of the San Francisco 49ers defensive line group, the two talented players came to appreciate each other's support during their memorable rookie seasons in the National Football League.
Both players went undrafted in 2011. Yet, both made enough plays in the preseason to make the 49ers opening day roster, making it the first time since 2001 that San Francisco had at least two undrafted free agents make the team to start the year.
In total, NFL Executive of the Year Trent Baalke signed 24 players, including Dobbs and Williams, to the team's roster through the draft and free agency at the beginning of July.
And when their rookie seasons came up a few plays short from making it to the Super Bowl, both players were able to take a step back and marvel over the whirlwind of accomplishments they had just experienced individually and collectively.
"It's been a blessing to be a part of this team, knowing how far they've come in one year," said Williams, a 6-foot-1, 305-pound defensive tackle, who was active for two games as a rookie. "For me to actually be a part of it and having those guys take me in, it was a lot of fun."
This time last year, Williams was one of many draft hopefuls aiming to impress NFL decision-makers at the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine, two important stops on the pre-draft circuit. Despite missing the last four games of his senior season at Notre Dame with a knee injury, the four-year contributor on defense was hopeful he'd be drafted with a strong showing at both events.
Dobbs, on the other hand, didn't have the same type of momentum leading into the 2011 NFL Draft. The University of Georgia product, who made athletic plays behind the line of scrimmage throughout his time in the Southeastern Conference, wasn't able to participate in either high-profile event for NFL hopefuls.
Dobbs suffered a hyper-extended elbow at the end of his collegiate career at Georgia which caused him to miss both of the critical events in the evaluation period.
Still, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive lineman had impressed coaches and scouts on his game tape, flashing his potential by making plays with his long arms and natural instincts.
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula was one of those intrigued with Dobbs' unique blend of athleticism and power. The 49ers respected position coach reached out to Dobbs prior to the combine and made sure he kept tabs on the Georgia lineman who had position versatility; a perfect trait for San Francisco's 3-4 defense.
"He always had confidence in me coming out and playing in his scheme," Dobbs recalled. "Not getting drafted and going through the whole free agency process, it was tough. I thought I was talented enough to get drafted but everything happens for a reason and I was blessed to be here with some of the best guys in the league on the defensive line."
The guidance from Tomsula and veterans like Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald allowed Dobbs to truly embrace his role as a backup lineman and special teams contributor.
"To learn from these guys and to really mold myself into playing like them has been a blessing," Dobbs added. "I wouldn't want to have it any other way. I see this as a huge blessing and a huge opportunity."
Undrafted like Dobbs, Williams was considered as one of the top rookie free agents available after the draft. Again like Dobbs, Williams was appreciative of the encouragement Tomsula gave him from the get-go.
And after playing a full year for Tomsula, Williams now considers him to be one of the best coaches he's ever worked with.
"Jimmy T is up there," Williams said. "You could go as close to saying 1A-1B with him and one of my other coaches. He's a good guy, a father figure and he's taught me so much. I've learned so much from him in six-seven months than I had in my entire football career and I can thank him and Justin and Ray for that."
According to the Sacramento Bee which obtained snap count information from the NFL, Williams saw seven snaps on defense as a rookie compared to the 34 snaps of defense and 87 snaps of special teams plays that Dobbs participated in.
Despite the disparity, the two formed a bond while going through the trial and error of a rookie season.
"It was great to have another rookie in the room," Williams said with a grin. "I wasn't the only one getting picked on by the older guys. We grew into some really great friends this year. I was so happy for him to get some playing time and to be on special teams and everything like that. I was a little jealous, I wanted to be out there, but I wanted him to be out there, too. He's got a bright future ahead of him."
Dobbs' role increased throughout the year once he made his way on to the special teams punt and kick-off coverage units. At 275 pounds, Dobbs was never out of place and was even close to being the first San Francisco player to reach the opposing return man on a few occasions.
On special teams, Dobbs displayed the athleticism that made him a valuable asset during the preseason. Back then, Dobbs routinely beat offensive linemen with his long arms and low center of gravity.
Although he didn't play as often on defense in the regular season, the 24-year-old lineman developed tremendously from playing behind an All-Pro, Pro Bowl defensive tackle like Smith and solid professionals like Sopoaga and McDonald.
"It wasn't like I read a book on how to pass rush or anything like that," Dobbs said. "It's just watching these guys and learning from them, that's how I've developed."
Williams picked up tricks of the trade from his veteran teammates on the defensive line, but he also added to his repertoire by picking the brain of veteran center Jonathan Goodwin, the team's 2011 Bobb McKittrick award winner.
"Going against Goody (Goodwin), (Adam) Snyder and (Daniel) Kilgore, those guys have made me that much better, especially going against Goodwin," Williams said.
So as Dobbs and Williams head into their first offseason as professional football players and not collegiate athletes looking to gain entry into the pro ranks, the duo cherishes its first exposure to the NFL level and vow to come back even more prepared.
"I've come far in the year to be at this point, reaching my dream," Williams said. "But looking back at everything, there's still so much more to accomplish."
Dobbs' three tackles in 12 regular season appearances as a rookie bode well for the young player contributing in upcoming seasons. Whether it was on defense, special teams or a few plays in the postseason as a blocker on offense, Dobbs found ways to be a valuable contributor.
Now, it's up to Dobbs to build on 2011 with a strong offseason.
"I'm going to get in the weight room, that's one of the things I need to do, get stronger and come back in great shape and try to do whatever I can to get a Super Bowl ring," Dobbs shared. "That's our mindset. We know the team isn't going to be the same next year, it never is in the league, but I'm going to do my best to be in top shape and be ready to fit in wherever its needed, on the offensive side, on special teams, wherever. I want do anything to help this team out, for these guys and the bond that we share."
Cracking the defensive line rotation won't be easy for Dobbs and Williams, but it's a competitive challenge they'll accept willingly.
"I'm looking forward to get out there and show what I can really do; hopefully get more playing time next year," Dobbs said. "This is the best D-line group in the league and it's been one of the best groups I've ever seen in my life. The things these guys do are unbelievable. It's a good thing to learn from these guys, but it's tough because you know you're going to have to wait your turn."
That waiting takes a great deal of patience according to Dobbs.
"These guys can play a whole game like nothing," said the Savannah, Ga. native. "They're in top shape. They never come out. But, learning and getting all the knowledge that's just going to make me a better player in the end."
Feeling the same way, Williams knows what's been accomplished previously by himself or the team won't matter when voluntary offseason workouts begin in March.
"I'm going to take a couple weeks off, go home, see family, relax and enjoy that time," said Williams, a native of Altamonte Springs, Fla. "But then it's time to get back to work. It's a short offseason and I've got to come back and prove my will again."