Will Middlebrooks give Denver case of the Willies?

Willie Middlebrooks returns to his place of career beginnings and forgettable memories this week, but he now says those days are all behind him. The former first-round draft pick never made it as a starting cornerback with the Denver Broncos, but he has been looking pretty spiffy in that role with the 49ers this summer, and that has put the rangy veteran in a position for a little payback Saturday when the Niners travel to Denver for their second preseason game.

But payback isn't real high on Middlebrooks' priority list right now. He says he has nothing to prove to the Broncos, who finally gave up on him after four unproductive seasons when they shipped him to San Francisco in a July 15 trade for defensive end John Engelberger.

"It's just another game," Middlebrooks told SFI on Thursday, and he actually looked like he meant those words. "If I had to go play the New Orleans Saints or anyone else, I'd approach it the same. The only difference is I'm going to see a bunch of friends and play against my old team. If I go out and have a great game or go out and have a bad game, it's not going to change anything about me not being in Denver."

But, Willie, wouldn't you like to stick it to the Broncos just a little?

Middlebrooks' expression didn't change.

"As far as me having something to go and prove," he responded, "the only thing I have to prove is to play sound for the 49ers and let (coaches) know I understand what's going on."

Middlebrooks has been letting the 49ers know plenty lately about his ability and grasp of the new defensive system that coaches have installed this summer. He wasn't impressive during the early stages of training camp, but he started coming on after being moved into the starting lineup after right cornerback Shawntae Spencer went down with a hamstring injury more than two weeks ago.

Then he went out in Saturday's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders and covered arguably the best receiver in the NFL like a glove.

Middlebrooks stuck like glue to Randy Moss on deep routes, allowing Oakland's big-play receiver to collect just one catch in front of him while the first-teamers were in the game. Like other starters, Middlebrooks departed early, but not before he recorded three tackles – tops among San Francisco defensive backs – and knocked away a pass.

"It shows that I'm playing with confidence, and it shows that I understand the defense," Middlebrooks said.

Despite what he says for the record, Middlebrooks really would like to show Denver a thing or two Saturday. He did admit, when asked if he wouldn't mind giving the Broncos just a little bit of regret for trading him, "If I told you no, I'd be lying."

But the Denver days are better left in the past where they belong, Middlebrooks said. Selected by the Broncos as the No. 24 overall pick in 2001, Middlebrooks' career in Denver was plagued from the start by injuries. Ankle problems wiped out half his rookie season, and a leg injury put him on injured reserve at the end of last season, when he finally was starting to come on.

Still, his four seasons in Denver produced just two starts and 20 total tackles, and he became expendable after the Broncos selected cornerbacks with each of their first three picks in the draft this spring.

"Denver approached us first," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "People typically know what others are looking for, but just kind of through the grapevine. Every now and then, when you really get desperate, you start shopping guys. That's how they came to us."

The 49ers were desperate themselves for veteran help at cornerback after moving Mike Rumph to safety this spring. Nolan brought in Middlebrooks with the expectation he'd be the team's nickel back and push the starters ahead of him on the depth chart.

It has worked out a bit better than that so far. Middlebrooks will make his second consecutive start Saturday, and he's making a serious bid to make that a permanent arrangement.

"He's pushing for it," Nolan said. "We'll see how it goes. He did a good job last week, and I would like to think that he would continue to get better this week."

Getting better is something Middlebrooks has done on practically a daily basis since he arrived in San Francisco, and the growing ease and confidence in his manner has been evident as he fits in with his new team.

"It's a fresh start, and sometimes a new beginning is good for anybody," Middlebrooks said. "It's just a breath of fresh air. I'm feeling a lot more comfortable, and I'm out there playing fast. I feel I'm playing at that (starting) level. All the guys here can play, but I feel I have a good chance of being a starter here."

Middlebrooks is glad to be focusing now on playing rather than off-the-field issues. Middlebrooks was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence earlier this year stemming from a Jan. 1 incident in which he allegedly was involved in a fight with a girlfriend.

That may have hastened his departure from Denver, but Nolan conducted a thorough background check and Middlebrooks came out clean. Nolan then pulled the trigger on the deal that sent Engelberger packing.

"I mean, that (incident) got blown way out of proportion," Middlebrooks said. "Some things you can prevent and some things you can't prevent. You just learn from your mistakes and get stronger from them. I'm just glad it's over with and I'm here now."

He's making the most of the opportunity, flashing the potential the made him a first-rounder. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Middlebrooks has formidable size for the edge, but it has been his skills that have been catching the eyes of teammates.

"Willie's got some great speed," said safety MikeAdams, who has slid into the starting nickel back role now that Middlebrooks no longer is there. "He's faster than I thought. He's a great complement out there to our defense."

That, Middlebrooks said, is all he wants to be.

"The first day I talked to Mike Nolan and became a 49er," Middlebrooks said, "I felt like I would be a strong part of this defense. Before I even touched down out here, that was my mindset. And now it's all shaping up together."

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