Niners Nation Scouting Report: Patrick Willis


With all the talk lately about Patrick Willis, I figured it would be appropriate to come up with an in-depth scouting report on Willis.  SB Nation lacks an Ole Miss blog, so I had to go to google.  After some work, I spoke with Bill at Rebel Roundup and he agreed to put together a scouting report for us.  We know what we've heard from the Combine and pro days.  Now let's see what an Ole Miss fan has to say:

Background

Linebacker Patrick Willis found his way to Ole Miss from the rural hamlet of Bruceton, Tennessee.  Since he toiled in obscurity at a tiny 1A school, he fell through the recruiting cracks a bit and was not a high-profile recruit.  As a true freshman in 2003, he introduced himself to Ole Miss fans with a bone-crunching hit while covering the opening kickoff against Alabama.  That tackle set the tone for the Rebels, who went on to drub the Tide that day in the most lopsided (and one of the few) Ole Miss victories in the series.

Unfortunately, in the early stages of his career Willis mostly saw special teams action and sat behind less-talented upperclassmen at linebacker.  At the time, Ole Miss employed a gimmicky 4-2-5 defense that only used two linebackers.  It was a system geared to stop the running game that seemed passable when Eli Manning was setting scoring records every year with the offense, but eventually Eli left and the shortcomings became obvious.  The fact that Willis, who was obviously the most talented player on the defense, was not starting in 2004 was one of the reasons behind the departure of head coach David Cutcliffe. Defensive firebrand Ed Orgeron was hired to take his place, and he immediately made it clear that Patrick Willis would be the backbone of the Ole Miss defense.  He brought a more conventional 4-3 look and installed Willis in the middle, setting him free to go after the ball. Several hundred tackles later, Willis is a first-round NFL draft pick in waiting.

Willis is a dream story for the reporter looking to work the "plaintive piano music in the background while the reporter lays on the schmaltz about the obstacles the athlete had to overcome" angle. In his case, though, it's actually justified.  Willis had an incredibly tough upbringing, and he more or less raised his brothers and sisters while suffering through grinding rural poverty that is hard for most of us to imagine in 2007.  He is a throwback to another era.

Strengths

Patrick Willis makes tackles.  That may sound somewhat obvious considering he is a middle linebacker, but Willis makes tackles at a stunning rate.  He led the nation in solo tackles in 2005 and finished second in 2006.  He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and won the Butkus award as the best linebacker in the country.  And he did all of this while playing for a team that was regularly overmatched by SEC powers who had future pros up and down the offensive line.  If the college production in the toughest conference in the country weren't enough, he also has good measurables. Willis ran a 4.52 at 242 pounds at the combine.

Obviously I'm not a scout or anything, but you don't have to be to have noticed that Willis played at a different speed than most players at the college level.  He has a great nose for the ball; I can't count the times he burst through the line and sacked the quarterback or dragged the running back down for a loss.  Despite his status as the only star on some pretty bad teams, he never developed a bad attitude or lost his work ethic.  He was the unquestioned leader of the team.

Weaknesses

Willis did pick up a lot of nagging injuries through his career, which was probably a function of how often he found absorbed contact in games since he was always around the ball.  He played a lot of games with a broken hand which necessitated a plaster cast that looked like a club.  He also is not as adept at dropping into coverage as he is at hunting down and tackling ballcarriers. However, this may be because his ability to find and make tackles is so advanced that his coverage skills suffer in comparison.

At the next level

Patrick Willis will keep making plenty of tackles in the NFL.  He may not be quite the ideal size for inside linebackers in the league, but his production speaks for itself.  For someone about to become an overnight millionaire, he is the last person I would worry about not being able to handle it.  Willis has been through a lot in his life, in his personal life and as the heart of an overmatched and undermanned team.  He will stick and be successful as a professional football player.

So it certainly seems like Willis is a guy with plenty of upside and little downside.  He brings the skills, the heart and the head to man the middle of our defense for years to come.  Again I want to thank Bill at Rebel Roundup for taking the time to put this piece together.  Definitely some insightful information.

And for those interested, NFL.com has posted recaps and analysis of individual workouts.  For Willis they had the following to say:

Willis (6-1, 237 pounds) ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 and 4.38. He also had a 4.37 short shuttle and 7.10 three-cone drill. He stood on his numbers from the Combine for the rest. He had a phenomenal workout and clearly made several seven-figure increments in his rookie contract.

So take that for what it's worth.

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