Yesterday, we continued our run through ESPN's 2016 power rankings by looking at their running back projections. They projected Marcus Lattimore as one of the top running backs heading into 2016. There's a lot of football to be played between now and then, but the 49ers are hoping for a little something from Lattimore between now and then.
I thought I'd take a look at another projection that includes the 49ers. ESPN projected out the top ten linebackers in 2016, and it should surprise nobody that the 49ers are represented. NaVorro Bowman will be 28 heading into the 2016 season, and is ranked second behind Luke Kuechly. Bobby Wagner (Seahawks) and Sean Lee (Cowboys) rank third and fourth, and then Patrick Willis slots in at fifth. Willis will be 31 heading into the 2016 season. Although many players have already begun their decline, if anybody will continue their dominance past 30, it will be Willis.
Patrick Willis, Bowman's teammate, deserves every ounce of praise that he receives for his game, but Bowman is a bona fide superstar in his own right. The smooth-moving 25-year-old can play from sideline-to-sideline and is the perfect complement to Willis in the Niners' 3-4 front. To crack this list, a player has to be able to get the job done against the run and pass; there's no doubting that Bowman can do that.
If this list highlighted the best linebackers for the 2013 season, Willis would top it, as he's perhaps the most feared player at the position and the prototypical middle linebacker. He's a physical freak with outstanding speed, toughness, ability to work through and around blocks and he tackles everything in sight. He's been productive since his rookie season and the 49ers were wise to pay him handsomely in a contract that keeps him in the Bay Area through 2016.
Naturally, the 49ers are the only team with two linebackers in the top ten, and only the Cowboys even have a second player in the honorable mention category (Bruce Carter). It will be interesting to see how long the 49ers are prepared to roll out Willis and Bowman together. Willis signed through 2016, while Bowman is signed through 2018. Some find it odd the team would spend so much on two inside linebackers, but the 49ers front office has stated that they find value in the fact that they have the versatility to adjust their play into a 4-3 defense as well. Their other-worldly talent is reason enough, but knowing they could adjust to a schematic change if needed makes it that much easier to keep them both around.