It's getting lonely at top for Patrick Willis

Patrick Willis looks to his immediate left in the 49ers locker room, and he sees an empty stall that used to belong to Takeo Spikes. He looks toward the wall on his right, and there's no Aubrayo Franklin. He looks across the floor, and there's no Dashon Goldson or Nate Clements. A 49ers defense that was on the verge of something is getting torn apart, and it could get worse before it gets better.

When the 49ers began training camp practices earlier this week at team headquarters, they did so without five defensive starters from last season in the building.

Some of them, like Spikes and Clements, are gone for good. Others are likely on their way out.

It leaves Willis, a four-time Pro Bowler and twice the NFL's leading tackler in his first four seasons in the league, forced into a new role as veteran leader who must try and hold it all together during a period of uncertainty while the team's defensive pieces fall into place – or out of place, as the case may be.

"It's kind of one of those things that's part of the game," Willis said. "Each year there is going to be change, and unfortunately there are some guys I had the pleasure of playing with that are no longer with us anymore. They will be missed, but we have to move on."

The 49ers, however, have been standing still while it's others who are moving on.

Spikes agreed to a new free-agent deal with the San Diego Chargers as soon as the lockout ended earlier this week. Clements was released on Thursday due to his exorbitant contract, and the possibility of him re-signing with the Niners at a reduced salary ended Saturday when Clements signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Meanwhile, the 49ers – while reportedly showing interest in some top free-agent cornerbacks who eventually signed with other teams – have done nothing to fill their holes on a defense that returned all 11 starters in 2010. And the holes could soon be increasing and getting deeper.

The 49ers will step on the field Sunday afternoon for their first padded practice of 2011 without five starters from last season. Three of them – nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and free safety Dashon Goldson – are free agents being pursued by other teams who are looking increasingly unlikely to return to the team.

"We've got a lot of jobs open," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Saturday. "As it looks now, five starters from last year's team at this moment are not here and don't look promising for them to be here. So, that's a whole new defense right there when you have to replace at least half of them. It might be more."

Fangio said there is only "two or three guys who are entrenched here by their past performances, and unless they fall of a cliff, they'll still be here."

Fangio didn't bother to mention Willis by name. He didn't have to.

But with other top defensive names leaving the team, it's getting lonely at the top for Willis, who had the comfort of other established veterans around him during his rise to stardom. Now some of them are gone, and several others are likely following them out the door.

The 49ers appear prepared to let Franklin and Lawson walk. The team still is actively pursuing Goldson, but that four-year veteran is on the radar of several other teams and is taking his time while considering all his options.

Goldson said late Saturday afternoon via his twitter account, "49ers are still in the runnin.' "

But as the 49ers hit the field in pads for the first time, they are missing players who accounted for 465 tackles and eight of the team's 15 interceptions last year. As the Niners go about the process of learning a new defensive system under Fangio, there currently is no plan to replace them other than from within with less-experienced players.

"The guys that are no longer with us… they were some of my close friends, my brothers, and I am going to miss them dearly," Willis said. "Those were some guys that since I've been here have contributed tremendously to this team and organization.

"I can look at it and say it's a downer and what am I going to do, or I can say this is something different, a new challenge and let's take it on and let's see how I can handle it. I have complete faith in our coaching staff and the players that we have here now. We just have to take it day by day and not let the frustration of having something new and not knowing right away get to us and get to me."

Niners Digest Top Stories