Where there's a Willis, there's a way

Niners got the defender they targeted all along

The 49ers got their impact defender in the first round of the NFL draft Saturday, the same guy they were aiming for all along. Patrick Willis was just too good to pass up with the No. 11 overall selection, not that the Niners would have considered that option when the standout University of Mississippi linebacker still was on the board when San Francisco went on the clock.

An inside linebacker was not exactly the Niners' most pressing need entering this draft, but it was difficult to question San Francisco's reasoning in taking the best player available according to the way the team had prospects slotted in this draft.

And as the 49ers, in the words of assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary, "continue to form an identity," on defense, Willis has the character and playmaking ability that perfectly fits the mold.

"He's an outstanding player and an outstanding person," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We already have a strong linebacker corps, but we have to continue taking the best player and making ourselves better. We took the best player on the board and we got Patrick Willis. I expect him to make an impact right away."

From SFI's vantage point, the 49ers couldn't have made a better selection. While the team has more pressing needs along the defensive line and at wide receiver, the top prospects at those positions already were off the board. The Niners could have taken a beefy defensive end such as Nebraska's Adam Carriker - who went two selections later to the St. Louis Rams at No. 13 - but why pass on a prospect with star potential merely to collect a good prospect who might better fill an immediate need?

The 49ers went with star potential, and Willis comes to the team as a prospect with very few flaws.

But that doesn't mean Willis won't have to work for what he gets with the Niners, something the 22-year-old indicates he is very willing and eager to do.

Willis, in fact, won't just be handed a starting position - he'll compete at inside linebacker with 11th-year veteran Derek Smith, a player the 49ers just gave a three-year, $14 million contract extension before last season.

"Hey, we've got good linebackers," Nolan said. "I hope our linebackers aren't reading anything into (this pick). It's going to make us better with Patrick Willis as we go forward."

But Willis figures to be just as much a part of the team's present as its future. Generally regarded as the best linebacker - inside our outside - in the entire draft, Willis was the first player at that position to come off the board, and that's a load of expectation he will carry with him into the NFL.

Willis had few problems living up to the hype in college. He was named the Southeastern Conference's Defensive Player of the Year last season after leading the league in tackles, and also walked away from a fabulous senior season with the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy, honors bestowed upon the nation's top linebacker.

He won't have trouble getting to know his new team. Willis played for the South team in the Senior Bowl that was coached by Nolan, Singletary and the rest of the San Francisco staff. Willis made quite an impression on the 49ers during the week - and also in the game, when he led all players with 11 tackles to earn South team defensive MVP honors - as they did on him.

"I'm ready to go there and give them everything I have got and give the organization everything I have," Willis said. "It's been a dream, and now that it's happening, I still can't believe that it's going to happen. Today is the first day, and I thank all the people that got me to this point and I just want to continue to press harder and continue to do well, and someday be a Hall of Fame player. That's my next goal."

Willis possesses those special qualities necessary for potential greatness. Just ask Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker himself.

"He's a very coachable young man," Singletary said. "I'm very excited to see what he brings to our defense. He certainly has a lot of tools - very talented, a lot of speed, good size to go with that speed, and he finds the football. He makes a lot of plays - a playmaker. Wherever the ball is, there's a good chance he's going to be around it."

And as the 49ers continue their climb back into NFL prominence, there's a good chance Patrick Willis will be in the middle of it.

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