Where he fits in: Patrick Willis

The 49ers never gave much consideration to passing on Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis - one of the top defenders on their draft board - when he still was available with the No. 11 overall pick in the first round of the draft. But Willis plays a position that already is manned in San Francisco's starting lineup by a competent veteran in Derek Smith. So where does Willis fit in as a rookie?

How about, everywhere?

To be sure, Willis will fit into San Francisco's defensive scheme, and 49ers fans and observers can expect him to be on the field - on the field a lot - from the moment San Francisco's season begins before a national television audience Sept. 10 against the Arizona Cardinals.

But just where, exactly?

Glad you asked. It's true that Willis is perfectly suited for the "Mike" inside linebacker position - the left side of the two inside linebacker slots in the team's 3-4 defense. It's also true that the 49ers signed Smith to a three-year, $14 million contract extension before last season, and they don't plan to just discard a proud veteran who saw his five-year run as the team's leading tackler end last season.

It's also true that some of the decline in Smith's play last season can be attributed to an eye condition that severely limited his range of sight. One-eyed linebackers, obviously, have trouble reacting and getting to the football. Smith, who turned 32 in January, had surgery to correct the problem during the offseason and is eager to come back strong and assume his position of leadership on a young defense during the upcoming season.

That said, his days as a starter are numbered. And that's where Patrick Willis comes in.

"Right now," 49ers personnel chief Scot McCloughan said early Tuesday afternoon, "Brandon Moore would be our 'Ted' (inside linebacker) and Derek Smith would be our 'Mike,' and we go into training camp and go from there."

That's right now, as in how things look on paper today. Unlike the first two seasons of the Mike Nolan/McCloughan regime, the 49ers aren't just going to pencil one of their top draft picks into the starting lineup over a proven veteran, particularly when that veteran remains one of the better holdover players on the roster.

They'll let Willis earn it on the field instead.

And don't expect that to take long to happen.

"Yes, sir, there is no doubt in my mind," Willis said Saturday - a few minutes after he was drafted - when asked by 49ers writers if he was expecting to come in and start right away.

"I want to come in here, and whoever is in front of me, I want to push them to be the best they can be, because every day that I step out on to that field, I want to be the best that I can be," Willis continued. "If it's good enough for the time the season starts and the coaches think it is, then I would start. But if it's not, then it's just special teams and whatever I have to do to help the team and contribute to the program, I'm all for it."

With his read-and-react skills and blazing sideline-to-sideline speed, Willis could virtually play any linebacker position in the team's 3-4. But the team wants him on the inside, where Moore established himself as a play-making standout last season. The 49ers say they'll give Smith a chance to retain his starting position next to Moore, using Willis in a variety of defensive sub-packages if Smith can hold him off as the starter entering the season.

But this kid is an every-down linebacker.

"He has all the intangibles to be a great 'backer," said a guy who ought to know, 49ers assistant head coach/defense Mike Singletary, who is in the Hall of Fame for his exploits as a linebacker with the Chicago Bears.

"He certainly has a lot of tools - very talented, a lot of speed, good size to go with that speed and he finds the football," Singletary continued. "He has that desire and instinct to find the football. Wherever the ball is - wherever it is - there's a good chance he's going to be around it. He's the guy that somehow, some way, gets there. He's a playmaker."

The initial plan for Willis - a role the 49ers do feel comfortable handing him from the very start - is in the team's third-down package, where he will line up as the weakside backer next to edge rusher Manny Lawson and have the middle of the field to make plays in pass coverage, not to mention open lanes when the 49ers opt to use him on blitzes.

But, from the start, this is one rookie you can expect to see on the field much more than that.

"I expect him to make an impact right away," Nolan said. "He'll compete with (Smith and Jeff Ulbrich) on the regular downs. In the third-down area, I would expect him to be a starter right away. Hannibal Navies was there last year, so he'll step right in front of him on that down. But as far as overall, in terms of second down, he will compete with the other guys. But he will certainly have an impact on our team right away."

SFI's 2007 projection: Darn right Willis will have an impact on the 49ers right away. He already is San Francisco's best linebacker - and we're talking right now, as in yesterday - and that includes both Moore and Lawson, who we expect to be above-average starters at the position in 2007. While Smith is still a capable veteran, he simply will not be able to hold off a younger, faster, better player, and Willis likely will have his starting position before the summer is over.. Willis, in fact, may get a head start on that this weekend if coaches decide to hold out or limit Smith in minicamp drills as he continues his recovery from eye surgery. In the final analysis, the 49ers will find a way - some how, some way - to get Willis on the field in a regular role. And, more than likely, he will find it for them. Once he finds his niche in San Francisco's defensive scheme, we expect Willis to become a legitimate candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration in 2007 while vying with Moore to become the team's leading tackler.

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