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Inside Linebackers: Long look back, brief look forward

If there is one area that is currently a strength for the 49ers, it's the inside linebacker position.  Although the depth at the position does not contain much in the way of starting experience, the team is not in a bad position at this point.  They've got an all-world linebacker in Patrick Willis and they've got a very solid option at the Ted position in Takeo Spikes.  Their two backups at this point are Scott McKillop, who recently completed his rookie season, and Matt Wilhelm, a journeyman linebacker who proved himself capable while filling in for an injured Takeo Spikes this past season.

Patrick Willis

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Patrick Willis 16 4 7 3 33 1 113 38 151

What else really needs to be said about Patrick Willis?  Willis has now been in the league for three seasons.  In that time he's been named to the All-Pro team all three seasons, twice as a first teamer.  He's led the league in tackles two out of those three years, and actually set the record for tackles in a season (since the stat has been counted).  This year was arguably his best season yet, even with fewer tackles than his rookie season.  He had a career-high 3 interceptions, 1 of which was returned for a touchdown.  He equaled his career high with 4 sacks and added 8 pass deflections and 3 forced fumbles.

His pass coverage was the one area he needed to improve and it appears as though he is making a concerted effort to do that.  As Coach Singletary has said, the next step for Patrick Willis comes in the mental aspect of the game.  It will come when he can read the offense at an even greater level and anticipate the offense, rather than rely on his athleticism to make the big plays.

The big question with Patrick Willis is the contract issue.  He's signed through 2011, meaning the 49ers aren't hard-pressed to get a long-term deal done.  Of course, in reality, the team needs to make sure they get something done before Bamm Bamm hits free agency.  MM made the point today that they could always franchise Willis.  Of course, middle/inside linebacker is one of the lower paid positions, so one could argue it might actually be a bit of a sign of disrespect (although maybe financially smart) to tag him.  How do the 49ers handle this considering all the players coming up in free agency and budgetary issues?

Takeo Spikes

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Takeo Spikes 14 4 8 0 0 0 57 18 75

Although Takeo Spikes is getting up there in age, he continues to be a spark-plug for the defense and a vocal leader.  Although his tackle numbers were down (lowest per game of his career), he finished with the second highest sack total of his career, and once again was always mixed up in the action.  He missed a game and a half with a hamstring injury, so that is certainly something to keep in mind going forward, but at this point in his career, I would argue that he's in a perfect position with the 49ers 3-4 defense.

I was trying to think of any particular "question" that arose surrounding Takeo Spikes, but at this point I don't see it.  At most, it's a question of whether the team should attempt to re-sign him after 2010, and how long generally the team might want to keep him around.  The 49ers don't exactly have an answer yet for the future, although they've got some potential in McKillop (see below).  How much longer do you see Spikes in a 49ers uniform?

Scott McKillop

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Scott McKillop 16 0 0 0 0 0 15 4 19

Scott McKillop completed his rookie season with the 49ers as a solid special teams player.  He's made his way into the defense at times, but he didn't really make a huge impact outside of special teams.  The question with McKillop is what kind of role can he develop into?  Is he going to be the future Ted linebacker, or will he be more of a super-sub/special teams role like Jeff Ulbrich?  Both are incredibly valuable.  Of course, if the 49ers do not have their Ted of the future, they certainly need to address it.

Matt Wilhelm

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2009 - Matt Wilhelm 9 0 0 0 0 0 12 6 18

Wilhelm was signed by the 49ers in October after losing Ulbrich and generally having depth concerns.  The signing proved quite fortuitous as he replaced Takeo Spikes at the half in week 10, and replaced him in the starting lineup in week 11.  Wilhelm has spent most of his career as a backup and if re-signed, will likely have a strong chance in training camp to earn a similar backup role.

Looking Forward

Free Agency

Player Status 2009 Team
Gary Brackett UFA Colts
Khary Campbell UFA Texans
Vinny Ciurciu UFA Lions
Karlos Dansby UFA Cardinals
Tim Dobbins* RFA Chargers
Larry Foote UFA Lions
Ryan Fowler UFA Jets
Omar Gaither* RFA Eagles
Tony Gilbert UFA Falcons
Abdul Hodge* RFA Bengals
Larry Izzo UFA Jets
D'Qwell Jackson* RFA Browns
Derrick Johnson* RFA Chiefs
Lance Laury* RFA Seahawks
Corey Mays* RFA Chiefs
Marvin Mitchell RFA Saints
Kirk Morrison* RFA Raiders
Barrett Ruud* RFA Buccaneers
DeMeco Ryans* RFA Texans
Jeremiah Trotter UFA Eagles
Stephen Tulloch* RFA Titans
Jeff Ulbrich UFA 49ers
Matt Wilhelm UFA 49ers
Jamar Williams* RFA Bears

2010 NFL Draft
The 49ers have some options worth drafting at inside linebacker, particularly if they decide McKillop is not the long term Ted answer.  People like McClain and there is certainly some other talent out there to consider.

Overall Rank Inside Linebackers School
Rolando McClain Alabama
Brandon Spikes Florida
Sean Lee Penn State
Daryl Washington TCU
Micah Johnson Kentucky
Darryl Sharpton Miami
Jamar Chaney Mississippi State
Pat Angerer Iowa
Reggie Carter UCLA
Joe Pawelek Baylor
Boris Lee Troy
Josh Hull Penn State
Kion Wilson South Florida
Reed Williams West Virginia
Mike McLaughlin Boston College
Matt Mayberry Indiana
Travis Goethel Arizona State
Donald Butler Washington
Ryan D'Imperio Rutgers
Phillip Dillard Nebraska
Mike Nixon Arizona State
Prince Hall Central Washington
Austin Spitler Ohio State
Jacob Cutrera LSU