Wonderful Willis becoming a rare breed at MLB

Patrick Willis probably is the 49ers' best player, regardless of position, and the prolific four-time Pro Bowler certainly would be a star on any team in any defensive system. But as a middle linebacker, Willis' exploits and value are becoming the exception rather than the rule in the NFL as teams no longer are making a priority of what used to be a glamour position.

Most pundits correctly predicted that Rolando McClain would go off the board in the top 10 of the 2010 draft, but the former University of Alabama middle linebacker appeared somewhat surprised when the Los Angeles Raiders chose him with the eighth overall selection in last year's lottery.

"I really wasn't sure that teams picked middle linebackers that high anymore," McClain said at the time.

McClain, who started in all 15 of his appearances as a rookie, is right.

They typically don't.

In the 10-year stretch from 2001-2010, only six middle linebackers by teams that play the 4-3 front, as opposed to 3-4 "inside" linebackers, were chosen in the opening round. McClain was the lone member of that subset of a half-dozen players selected in the first round that was picked among the top 10.

The first "pure" middle linebacker chosen by a 4-3 defensive team in this year's draft was Martez Wilson of Illinois, selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round, with the 72nd overall pick.

McClain, Jon Beason of Carolina and the 49ers' Patrick Willis are the only true middle linebackers taken in the first round in the past five drafts. All three linebackers chosen in the first round last weekend were "edge"-type defenders.

Once the undeniable glamour spot on defense – there are 11 former middle linebackers in the Hall of Fame from the modern era of the sport – the position has seemingly diminished in the public eye and maybe in importance as well.

Not since Harry Carson was inducted with the Class of 2006 has a middle linebacker been enshrined at Canton, and the onetime New York Giants star defender actually finished his career in a 3-4. Arguably the last Hall of Fame inductee to have played all or most of his career at middle linebacker was Miami's Nick Buoniconti, inducted with the class of 2001.

At least according to the NFL's compilation of the always- subjective statistic, it's been five seasons since a 4-3 middle linebacker led the league in tackles.

If it seems like the position once defined by tough-guy defenders such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert, and former 49ers coach Mike Singletary has waned some in perceived stature, well, it has. Even Singletary, a Hall of Fame member, employed a 3-4 scheme during his tenure in San Francisco.

"It's kind of become a game of playmakers, and a lot of teams don't consider it a position where you get a lot of big plays," acknowledged Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton. "We may not agree; the guys who play the position definitely don't feel that way. But, right or wrong, it's become the approach of a lot of people in the league anymore."

There are a lot of reasons for the reduction in perceived importance of the middle linebacker position. Primary among them, of course, is the renewed prevalence of the 3-4 alignment, with essentially half of the league playing the front now as a "base" defense. Niners' star Willis, a Pro Bowl performer in all four of his NFL seasons, would be a standout in a 4-3 as well, most agree, but he is with a club that prefers the 3-4.

Willis played in a 4-3 system in college at the University of Mississippi, and the potential he displayed there convinced the 49ers to select Willis with the No. 11 overall pick in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft.

The Niners certainly haven't been disappointed. Willis has led the NFL in tackles two of his four seasons – he was second in another season – and already has collected 737 career tackles, an average of 184 per season.

But teams are wary of investing heavily, either in draft choices or money, on a defender who isn't likely to even be on the field on third down. Willis is an exception. He plays every down for the 49ers, and had a career-high six sacks to go along with seven passes defensed.

But throw in the reality that colleges aren't producing many pure middle linebackers anymore, with the preponderance of "spread" offenses emphasizing a premium on matching up with outside speed, and the amalgam of factors has reduced the position's profile.

Baltimore's Ray Lewis, a certain Hall of Fame member in the future, will be forever known as a middle linebacker. But he has played in a 3-4 the last several seasons. The Ravens' scheme hasn't reduced the havoc Lewis can wreak, or the fear in which he is regarded by some opponents, but it still doesn't have quite the same weight as when the 15-year veteran was patrolling the middle by himself.

"There's something old-school about it; you kind of take pride in it," Beason said of playing the middle spot in a 4-3. "I'm sure the change takes a while to get used to."

DeMeco Ryans of Houston, who has played middle linebacker in all five previous NFL seasons, will make the switch to a 3-4 inside spot in 2011. It will be interesting to see how Ryans, coming back from an Achilles injury that limited him to six games in 2010, handles to transition. Not everyone does well with the switch.

In his first two seasons in the league, Jonathan Vilma, who earned defensive rookie of the year honors with the New York Jets in 2004, played middle linebacker. When Eric Mangini replaced Herm Edwards as head coach in 2006, he changed to a 3-4 and Vilma, forced to play with someone next to him, struggled badly. Vilma was then traded to New Orleans, a 4-3 team, in 2008, and has been named to the Pro Bowl in two of his three campaigns with the Saints.

Green Bay former first-round choice Nick Barnett (2003) was a very good middle linebacker his first six seasons in the league, but when the Packers switched to the 3-4 in 2009, he struggled. Barnett suffered a wrist injury in 2010, was replaced by Desmond Bishop, and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV with him on injured reserve. Barnett will either take a deep pay cut to stay with the Packers in 2011, or he will be traded or released.

Said Vilma after a game last season: "I think I can play both, but I love the 4-3, and I just feel more comfortable and more productive in it. Some guys probably just aren't able to make the change."

The numbers support that: Vilma has averaged 7.9 tackles per game in the 4-3, and 6.8 in the 3-4. In five seasons in a 4-3, he has 9½ sacks, eight interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The totals for 1½ seasons in a 3-4 scheme: zero sacks, two thefts, one forced fumble.

Despite the performance of Vilma, who has authored numerous timely plays in his tenure with the Saints, the feeling is that 4-3 middle linebackers tend to be players who stuff the run but don't make many game-altering plays. They are largely two-play guys who fill an inside gap versus the run, then are replaced by a nickel defender on the down that is now considered the game's most important snap. Stephen Tulloch of Tennessee finished second in the NFL in tackles last season, but had just one sack and one interception.

Not since 2007 has a 4-3 middle linebacker registered more than three interceptions. The most sacks by a 4-3 middle 'backer the last two seasons was four. There simply aren't many middle linebackers like Vilma or Brian Urlacher of Chicago or Beason who play all three downs anymore.

"They're still important guys," said Denver coach John Fox, a 4-3 proponent who had both Beason (2007) and Dan Morgan (2001 first-rounder by George Seifert) in his time in Carolina, and who will switch the Broncos back to his preferred front in 2011, after two seasons in the 3-4. "But I can understand why some coaches are going the other way. It's definitely the trend."

It's a trend in the draft as well. There are 17 teams that are projected to employ the 4-3 as their "base" defense in 2011, and only four of them figure to have former first-round choices as their starting middle linebackers. Teams are more likely to find middle 'backers in the second round – like Ryans, Lofton, E.J. Henderson (Minnesota), James Laurinaitis (St. Louis), Lofa Tatupu (Seattle), or Barrett Ruud (Tampa Bay) – or even later.

"You've got to be pretty special to play in the middle and have a team take you in the first round anymore," said Indianapolis standout middle 'backer Gary Brackett, an eight-year veteran who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

"Really special."

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