When San Francisco 49ers suffered ILB NaVorro Bowman that gruesome season-ending injury in the NFC Championship Game, it left a huge void at the “Mike” position. A role that requires an athletic freak of nature to handle the multitude of responsibilities that comes with the nature of the position, the 49ers may have found their man in six-time All-Pro ILB Patrick Willis.
The former first-round pick (No. 11) in the 2007 NFL Draft, Willis will be out to prove his worth in 2014. A position that requires a more sideline-to-sideline presence while lining up over the tight-end, Willis will go back to his “Mike” role that made him the 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Under then defensive coordinator DC Greg Manusky, Willis flourished as the quarterback of the defense as he stormed out of the gates by racking up 595 tackles, 15.0 sacks, eight forced fumbles, four interceptions, and 28 pass break-ups in his first four NFL seasons. A player with the athleticism, speed, and strength to flow to the ball naturally while “spying” on the quarterback in run support, Willis was the epitome of an inside “Mike” linebacker. Now, as he enters his eighth season with the team, Willis will go back to his roots and relish that role once again in 2014. However, the question remains how will he fare? I predict extremely well.
A bold prediction I made a while back as I said, “Willis will be the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year” I stand by that statement today. For one, Willis will have more opportunities to make plays on the ball while staying on the field in the team’s dime package. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh elaborated on that scenario as he said, “He’s a great football player, we want him on the field as much as possible.”
With Willis moving to the strong side that leaves ILB Michael Wilhoite to play the “Jack” role or what I like to call the “plugger” role. A position that requires the inside linebacker to take on and occupy blockers to free up Willis, Wilhoite or rookie third-round pick ILB Chris Borland would seem to be my two front-runners for that position.
And with Willis being incorporated on dime packages, he will have more playing time which in turn means more opportunities to make plays. Whether wrestling a ball-carrier behind the line of scrimmage or staying stride for stride with the tight-end, Willis will certainly earn his paycheck this season as he looks to maintain his status as arguably the best linebacker in the NFL.