I broke up the reviews of inside and outside linebackers because of the dramatically different roles of the players. Furthermore, the two sets of positions create different types of priorities and needs for the 49ers this offseason. The two inside linebacker positions have different duties and thus usually require different types of players. Things changed a little bit with the addition of Takeo Spikes during 2008 training camp. Also, I left Jeff Ulbrich out of this review due to a combination of space issues and the fact that he's more of a full-time special teamer now.
Patrick Willis: What else needs to be said about Bamm-Bamm (I guess I'm not sold on P-Willy). Willis saw his numbers decrease this season, but certainly not because he was any worse. An improved defense actually managed to make more plays that he was stuck with last season. The addition of Takeo Spikes was one reason. Having a more athletic and all-around better Ted linebacker made Willis's life a little easier. Additionally, the improved play of Aubrayo Franklin at the nose tackle position was a huge improvement over last season.
As great as Willis looked his first year, his pass defense seemed to improve in year two. The stats certainly show it as he doubled his pass deflections to 10 and ran back his only INT for a touchdown. The INT return shows the athleticism, which is certainly important in pass defense. However, I believe defending passes takes a little more awareness and knowledge than the physicality seen in defending against the run. Patrick Willis certainly didn't lack this awareness and knowledge, but it probably had to be refined a little bit at the NFL level. So far so good it seems.
Takeo Spikes: The courtship of Takeo Spikes paid off big time. Ulbrich was given the first chance at the Ted, but when Spikes was finally signed, I'm guessing most people expected him to take over the job before too long. Once he did take over, he made quite an impact. He finished tied for second in total tackles and was a big reason Willis's tackle numbers went down. I was particularly entertained by Spikes's three-game interception streak early in the season.
My general belief about the Ted heading into the season was that it was meant to open up holes for the Mike linebacker to make the plays. Kind of like a linebacker version of a nose tackle. Spikes turned that notion on its head with his playmaking abilities. It certainly would affect future options at the position as I originally thought of it as more of a role-player that doesn't require a huge investment.
I decided to go with inside linebacker today because of increased discussion (here and elsewhere) about potential draft and free agent options. I already gave my reasoning for why we wouldn't go after Ray Lewis. I'd expect Spikes to be brought back, meaning no Bart Scott (a guy I wouldn't mind having, but not for the $$$). Given the finances, are there any free agents you'd prefer the 49ers go after for the Ted position?
I found myself particularly intrigued by mocks that had us taking Rey Maualuga, an ILB out of USC. It's not because I want it to happen, but I find it interesting given the 49ers current situation. There are some talented inside linebackers in this year's draft including James Laurinaitis (Ohio State) and Brandon Spikes (Florida and cousin of Takeo). Although Takeo Spikes is solid, he's also just a short-term answer. I'd imagine the 49ers would take an inside linebacker, in hopes of developing their Ted of the future. The question is if it's worth going after a guy like Maualuga in the first round. It would certainly qualify as a luxury pick, given the needs along the offensive and defensive lines, among others.
So, are the 49ers at a point where they can afford this kind of luxury? If they sign Takeo Spikes and then draft Maualuga it would certainly create an "interesting situation." So in looking at the poll, it's not should they make the selection, but rather, would you approve if they did make the Maualuga selection. Whether you would or not, how early do you see the 49ers actually grabbing an ILB?