49ers positional analysis: Middle linebacker

Patrick Willis is arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL – a status that's unlikely to change in the near future as he enters his prime – so for the 49ers, it's all about how good they can be next to Willis in the middle of their 3-4 defensive scheme. The Niners are working on that with a pair of promising homegrown products and a veteran who was pretty darn good in that role last season.

Here's the current breakdown of the 49ers at the position:

Starters at beginning of 2010 season: Takeo Spikes (TED), Patrick Willis (MIKE)

Starters at finish of 2010 season: Takeo Spikes (TED), NaVorro Bowman (MIKE)

2010 positional grade: A-minus

Middle linebackers currently on roster: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Scott McKillop, Keaton Kristick, Alex Joseph

Pending free agents: Takeo Spikes (unrestricted)

Need to upgrade position before season: Minimal

The need to upgrade here is minimal because of Willis, obviously, but also because the veteran who played so well next to him last year – Takeo Spikes – has recently indicated he wants to return to the 49ers in 2011 for his 14th NFL season.

But Spikes is no dummy. After a season like he had in 2010 – when he was second on the team with 125 tackles and ninth among NFL inside linebackers with 82 solo stops – Spikes realizes, as an unrestricted free agent, there might be a few teams out there who will be interested in offering him a contract that will pay more than the deal he's likely to be offered by the Niners once the NFL lockout ends.

Spikes said as much on Wednesday during an interview with Sporting News Radio.

"Well, technically I'm still a 49er just because nothing has… the lockout has not been unlocked," Spikes said. "They still have my rights. Once everything goes through I'll be a free agent again and just test the market and see if they… I know they want me. Everything has gotta make sense at the end of the day for both sides."

It would make sense for the 49ers to offer Spikes a deal that's attractive enough to make sure he returns for at least one more season with the team, even though Spikes turns 35 in December and has a lot of NFL wear and tear on his tires.

None of that seemed to matter last year when Spikes held off an early challenge from third-round draft pick NaVorro Bowman and went on to have one of the finer seasons of his distinguished career, which features two Pro Bowl berths and 1,519 career tackles.

Spikes was an excellent complement next to Pro Bowl star Willis, giving the 49ers arguably the most productive pair of middle linebackers in the NFC, if not the NFL. No pair of middle linebackers in the league combined for more solo tackles, showing that both Spikes and Willis can get to the ball and bring down ball carriers without help from others.

Of course, nobody does that any better than Willis, who had another standout season in 2010, leading the 49ers with 153 tackles and recording a career-high six sacks despite missing the final game of the season with a broken hand – the first game Willis has missed in his four-year career.

Those are four years that have put Willis on a path toward the Hall of Fame. Since being drafted by the 49ers with the No. 11 overall selection of the 2007 draft, Willis has been a Pro Bowler every season, a first-team All-Pro three times and the league's leading tackler in 2007 and 2009. He has recorded 773 tackles during his first four seasons, an average of 184 per year.

And he has remained a tackle machine in recent seasons even with opponents scheming to keep him away from the ball. Willis is an instinctive sideline-to-sideline player who's adept at shedding blockers within San Francisco's scheme. The only thing more the 49ers would like to see from Willis is perhaps a few more big plays. He did not have an interception or fumble recovery for the first time in his career in 2010.

The attention attracted by Willis gives more opportunities to his partner inside, something Spikes has taken advantage of in each of the past three seasons, during which he's recorded 342 tackles.

If Spikes doesn't return, the 49ers will likely look for an experienced veteran free agent to come in and provide depth at the inside LB positions, and also as insurance should Bowman still not be ready to step in as the regular starter next to Willis.

Bowman wasn't quite ready for that as a rookie last year, but that was in part because Spikes was in his way. Bowman is a bit tight in his hips, but he has starter potential written all over him and could develop into the long-term answer next to Willis. The upcoming season will be an important step in his growth.

Bowman had six tackles in his second NFL game last September, and the 49ers considered during the week after that loss to New Orleans whether to give Bowman an early shot at the starting lineup. Spikes held him off and kept the job, but Bowman didn't pout and became San Francisco's leading tackler on special teams.

Bowman got his first NFL start in place of Willis in the season finale against Arizona and recorded a game-high 15 tackles, suggesting his best is yet to come. If both Bowman and Spikes are back with the Niners this season, they should provide a wonderful competition for the starting job next to Willis.

Also in the mix is Scott McKillop, a 2009 fifth-round draft pick who showed some skills as a run-stopper as a rookie, when he also led the 49ers in special teams tackles with 31. McKillop missed all of last season with torn knee ligaments, but he is now fully recovered and has been working out at full speed this spring.

McKillop might not have the all-around skills to be the starter the 49ers want next to Willis, but he has value as a reserve and could provide quality depth at the position.

The 49ers also like what they've seen from Keaton Kristick, an undrafted rookie last year who worked his way up from the practice squad to the active roster in October. Kristick remained there the rest of the season, recording four tackles during a December victory over Seattle while also contributing on special teams.

Alex Joseph is yet another young prospect who finished the season on San Francisco's 53-man roster after he was signed off Carolina's practice squad in late December. He had two special teams tackles against Arizona in his 49ers debut.

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