When the San Francisco 49ers drafted ILB Patrick Willis in the first-round (No. 11) in the 2007 NFL Draft, they clearly drafted the best player available. A linebacker that was considered a sure-fire top 10 selection, Willis somehow fell through the cracks as other players were selected before him such as T Levi Brown, DE Jamaal Anderson, WR Ted Ginn Jr., and DT Amobi Okoye. However, Willis did not let that affect his play as he stormed out of the gates en route to winning the AP NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
A rookie season that saw him set a career-high in tackles with 174 while also adding 4.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery, Willis quickly established himself as one of the best linebackers in the game, as he became the first 49ers rookie to be named to both the AP All-Pro first-team and Pro Bowl since the great DB Ronnie Lott did it in 1981.
Now as Willis enters his eighth season with the team, the question remains how will he fare in 2014? A player that was a first-team All-Pro from 2007-2012, Willis missed the cut last season as Carolina Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly took that honor in 2013. So with Willis prepared to bounce back in 2014, how will the six-time All-Pro respond? By winning the 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award.
A bold prediction on my part, as I believe that Willis is somewhat of a liability in pass coverage, he still has the football IQ, speed, and strength to take that next step among the NFL greats. An award that only two 49ers won as CB Deion Sanders garnered those honors in 1994 while DT Dana Stubblefield did it in 1997, look for Willis to add his name to that list despite history going against him.
For one, Willis will likely elevate his game now that his All-Pro teammate and best friend ILB NaVorro Bowman will be out as he recovers from both a torn MCL and ACL. That means Willis will likely be more of a pass-rusher like he was under DC Greg Manusky.
A position Willis is comfortable with as he racked up 15 sacks in four seasons, Willis spoke on possibly replacing Bowman at his old position as he said, “Since NaVorro is going to be down for a bit, might be a possibility that I could be moving over playing some of that position.”
Willis then elaborated on his knowledge of the scheme as he said, “I always take pride in knowing what all other 10 guys do not just my position. I did play it quite a bit my first four years similar to Manusky’s defense so I kind of have a little bit of understanding of it.”
A blessing in disguise for Willis as he will now have more opportunities to showcase his sideline-to-sideline ability, look for him to play with a chip on his shoulder as he redeems himself as a first-team All-Pro. An honor that went to Kuechly last year as I alluded to earlier, look for Willis to outshine him in 2014. Willis is a known competitor and and to say he doesn’t care about his streak of first-team All-Pro selections being snapped last season is ridiculous. Let’s be honest, he would do anything to trade individual accolades for a Super Bowl ring, but that’s not how it works. Willis is a competitor and he didn’t get to where he is today by settling for second best.
The heart and soul of the 49ers defense since entering the league his rookie season, look for Willis to assert himself as the NFL’s best defensive player in 2014 as he fends of Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt, Seattle Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, and yes Kuechly, as he becomes the 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
A career defining season for Willis look for him to put on a show, as I predict him to have around 160 tackles, 6.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, three interceptions, and 10 pass break-ups.