Even Willis wondering about top 100 placement

Just as NinersDigest predicted back on May 13, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis has landed among the top quarter of standout performers in the NFL Network's top 100 players of 2011. But now that Willis has come in at No. 23 on the list, that seems a little low for where he really should be considered among the league's best players.

Willis' name finally was announced Sunday by the network, which is releasing 10 names at a time in a 10-part series that counts down the NFL's finest. Considering the strong resume he has built in just four seasons with the 49ers – and the universal recognition he has received from the league's coaches and players so far – even Willis had to wonder about his placement on the list.

After his name was announced, Willis sent out this message via Twitter, "number 23 hmmm. Its doesn't matter where I start its where I finish that matters most to me. In time my friends. " I have to Keep grinding" "

And so he does. While Willis might already be a top 15 talent in the league – surely, he must be regarded among the very elite of NFL defenders – he will never get the true recognition he deserves until the team around him enjoys more success and becomes a winner again. The 49ers have not had a winning season since 2002.

Anybody who has seen the video segment of Willis joining the list can see what a great player he has become at age 26. The nearly three-minute segment shows Willis at his best, whether it be stopping St. Louis running back Steven Jackson with a textbook tackle in the open field, filling a hole to bop Minnesota's Adrian Peterson at the line of scrimmage, chasing down Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman for a backside sack or launching into Arizona QB Kurt Warner for a crushing sack.

Willis is presented by 49ers veteran Takeo Spikes, who has combined with Willis the past three years to give San Francisco one of the league's top tandems at inside linebacker.

"Right now, the best linebacker in the game, beside from myself, I think hands down (is) Patrick Willis," Spikes says in opening. "What really makes him good? Patrick does all the ordinary things extraordinarily well."

Willis is the third 49er to make the NFLN's top 100, which the network says is "determined by the players themselves." Running back Frank Gore came in at No. 94 last month, followed by tight end Vernon Davis at No. 88. Like Willis, those two offensive standouts probably would be considered higher if the 49ers were more successful as a team.

Conspicuously missing so far on the list is defensive lineman Justin Smith, a two-time Pro Bowler who anchors San Francisco's defensive front. It's debatable whether Smith will appear among the top 20 players still to be announced, particularly since Willis is generally considered San Francisco's best player.

Interspersed on the video clip between more top highlights of Willis' career so far – including his 23-yard interception return for a touchdown against St. Louis in 2009 and his spectacular, weaving, 86-yard interception return for a TD against Seattle in 2008 – Spikes sings on with his matter-of-fact praise of Willis.

"Covering, running, being able to take on a block, old school, you don't see a lot of linebackers who are able to do that, take on a block then defeat the block and make the play," Spikes said. "He never slows down to think about what he's accomplished in the past. It's always, ‘what can I do to get better?'"

Well, Willis can be better than No. 23 on this list. And probably already is.

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