With NaVorro Bowman out for the majority of the 2014 season and the future of Aldon Smith in doubt, the San Francisco 49ers will need big seasons from some of their defensive stalwarts. Perhaps no player will be more vital to their success than LB Patrick Willis.
Willis has been the model of consistency on and off the field since joining the 49ers in 2007. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons and been a First Team All-Pro five times. His teammates will look to him to provide leadership and steady play in the middle of the defense.
Part of leading for Willis will also have to involve staying on the field. The linebacker has played through numerous injuries, including a broken hand, but he has also missed time in three of the last four seasons. In the past, however, there have been players like Bowman or Takeo Spikes left to pick up the slack on the inside, but this season may be different.
As it stands now, Michael Wilhoite will start in place of Bowman until he is ready to return. Wilhoite filled in admirably for Willis during two starts in 2013, but he is not anywhere near the level of either of the 49ers’ regular starting inside linebackers. Should Willis go down, Wilhoite would not be an ideal candidate to carry the load.
Given Willis’ past performance, there is no reason to think he would be any less than spectacular as he continues on a path to the Hall of Fame. The 49ers are lucky to have him in the middle of their unit as they enter a season of uncertainty on defense.