Willis, Lee going to Pro Bowl

Patrick Willis' youth and inexperience haven't prevented him from becoming one of the impact defenders of this 2007 NFL season, so why should they prevent him from joining the league's elite players in the Pro Bowl as a rookie? Willis continued to be a 49er who's ahead of his time on Tuesday when he was selected to play in the NFL's annual all-star game, joining teammate Andy Lee on the NFC squad.

Willis, the NFL's leading tackler, took it all in stride with an even keel and his usual low-key temperament. But he appreciates the honor because it does recognize the defensive force he has become in his first season in the league.

"It's special in the sense that this game is not about seniority, it's not about how long you've played," Willis said late Tuesday morning after he was notified of the honor by 49ers coach Mike Nolan. "It's how productive you've been this year, and I'm really thankful for that. It shows that hard work doesn't go unnoticed."

It's been difficult for anybody not to notice what Willis has done this season with the 49ers. He's the guy making tackle after tackle after tackle every Sunday.

With two weeks remaining in the season, Willis leads the NFL with 142 tackles, according to statistics recorded by the league. He has a wide 20-tackle lead over his nearest pursuer - Detroit linebacker Ernie Sims, who has 122 - in the chase to finish as the 2007 NFL champion in tackles.

The 49ers had four other players selected as alternates to the NFC squad. Offensive guard Larry Allen, running back Frank Gore, cornerback Nate Clements and defensive lineman Bryant Young each would be considered as a replacement at their respective positions if a player selected ahead of them is unable to participate.

All four alternates have appeared in the Pro Bowl before. Gore was the NFC's starting running back last season and Allen also played on the NFC team for the 11th time in his distinguished career. Young has been named to four Pro Bowls and Clements previously made the AFC squad when he was playing for the Buffalo Bills.

This figures to be the first of many trips for Willis to Hawaii, where this year's rendition of the Pro Bowl will be played on Feb. 10 at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu.

Willis joins some rare company among 49ers rookies who have earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in their first season. He's the first San Francisco rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Ronnie Lott was chosen to the NFC team in 1981 and just the second 49ers rookie in the past 41 years to be selected.

The other rookies selected before Lott were fullback Ken Willard (1966), end Dave Parks (1965), halfback Dave Baker (1959), halfback Jerry Mertens (1958), halfback Dick Moegle (1955), halfback Hugh McElhenny (1952) and tackle Leo Nomellini (1950), the 49ers' first-ever selection in the NFL draft.

Willis, the No. 11 overall selection in the first round of this year's draft, wouldn't take the credit on his own for the outstanding season he has had that got him to Hawaii while playing for a 4-10 team.

"It's a combination of everything," Willis said. "First of all, I'd just like to start with my teammates. My teammates are tremendous guys. The defensive line played great all year. Being a 3-4 (defense), people know how tough that can be. And my linebackers Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Brandon Moore, they've really been helpful. When I have a question, they answer it.

"And coach (Mike) Singletary, just teaching me and being there for me, and then coach (Greg) Manusky, too."

Willis said it still will take a little while for his latest accomplishment to sink in. He was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for October and has been named NFL Rookie of the Week three times.

"I can't believe I'm going over there in my first year," Willis said. "It's a blessing. I want to go there and represent the 49ers as best I can."

While Willis still was at the team facility when he learned of his selection early Tuesday, Lee already had left 49ers headquarters and was driving down the freeway when his cell phone rang.

When he heard Nolan's voice on the other line, he knew that had to be a good thing.

"I'm pretty sure this is the first time he's ever called me," Lee said. "And I'd heard that he would probably call me if I do make it. So when I heard his voice on the phone, I got butterflies in my stomach."

Lee is in the midst of a spectacular season and on course to set several team punting records and possibly a NFL record. He leads the NFC in gross and net punting with averages of 48.3 yards and 42.4 yards No punter in league history has ever averaged 40 yards or more on net punts in a season.

Like Willis, Lee credits the people around him with the 49ers for his success the year.

"I want to thank all my coaches, all the 49ers fans, the guys on the team, my guys on the punt team and coach (Al) Everest for really sticking in there with me this year and playing hard for us and covering my punts and just doing everything that they did for me. They really helped me out this season."

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