Yesterday I looked at outside linebacker. Today, it’s the inside ‘backers, who of course were led by Patrick Willis, the defensive rookie of the year. The hope is that Willis will man the “Mike” linebacker spot for, oh, the next decade or so. The question, however, is who will play beside him.
Brandon Moore. It was one of the mysteries of 2007: What happened to Brandon Moore? A year earlier, he was the darling of the defense, earning a starting role at midseason and finishing No. 1 on the team in tackles despite just 11 starts. Moore seemed to be everywhere – sacking the quarterback, tackling runners – and ball carriers were stopped in their tracks as soon as Moore wrapped his arms around them. Moore seemed like a perfect fit at Ted linebacker, and the long-term plan was for him to play alongside rookie Patrick Willis in the middle of the 49ers’ defense. At the same time Willis was proving to coaches that he deserved a starting role this summer, however, Moore was losing his starting job. He wasn’t aggressive or gritty enough for the Ted position – which calls for the linebacker to take on blocks – and missed several tackles in the preseason. The starting job instead went to Derek Smith, and Moore had to settle for a third-down role as a pass rusher. That type of unexpected demotion has been the story of Moore’s career dating back to college. He is signed through 2010 and if Smith does not return in 2008, the 49ers will need someone to fill the Ted position. Will it be Moore? Coaches will have to see more intensity and better consistency to trust him in that role.
Derek Smith. The inside linebacker had a stellar season in 2005, starting all 16 games and leading the team in tackles for the fifth straight season. Smith was a coach’s dream – reliable, smart, played through injuries – and the 49ers rewarded him with a handsome, three-year contract. The next season, however, all the hits that Smith has delivered over his career began catching up with him. He developed a weakness in one of the muscles in his left eye, a condition that affected his depth perception. He was whiffing on tackles he had routinely made for the 49ers over the previous five seasons. Still, Smith played through the issue, first experimenting with corrective goggles and then adjusting his stance so that his eyes could work in concert. Smith missed four starts at the end of the season, but it was because of a hamstring injury not the eye problem. He underwent surgery in the offseason to correct the problem and returned healthy in 2007. When Moore failed to hold onto the starting job at Ted linebacker, Smith seamlessly moved over from the Mike linebacker position. For the second straight year, however, Smith showed signs of breaking down toward the end of the season. Smith’s lack of speed caused him to be close, but ultimately miss, several tackles, and the Ted position is one the 49ers will try to upgrade this offseason. Smith can be a valuable teacher – as he was this past season for Willis – for a rookie or newcomer. But he is scheduled to earn more than $3 million -- too steep for a teacher’s salary.
Jeff Ulbrich. Coaches will tell you that if they had 53 No. 53’s on their roster, they’d win the Super Bowl every year. Like Smith, Ulbrich is the ultimate warrior, at one point this season playing on two high-ankle sprains. He’s also smart, likeable and willing to play any position on the field. (He’s the 49ers’ back-up kicker). When Moore was inserted into the starting lineup last season, Ulbrich was relegated to special teams and flourished in that role. This season, he finished second to Michael Robinson in the season-long “Top Gun” competition that recognizes the 49ers’ top special teams performer. Ulbrich also had a starring role in the team’s so-called “Big Nickel” package that the 49ers’ used against pass-first teams like New Orleans and Seattle. Ulbrich started twice for Smith at Ted linebacker but he probably is too small to man that position full time. Ulbrich’s most natural position is at Mike linebacker where he would back up Willis.
Patrick Willis. After watching Willis finish with 18 or 20 tackles, it’s always a bit surprising to see him in the locker room after a game. You half expect him to be seven feet tall with fireballs coming from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse. (Braveheart reference). Instead, he’s average sized, albeit with knotty, Popeye-esque forearms. Willis’ greatest asset is his speed, which allows him not only to run down ball carriers from sideline to sideline but to deliver a stinging blow when he reaches them. Force = Mass x Acceleration. In addition to his tackling prowess, Willis also showed steady improvement in coverage as the year went on, which should mean more interceptions in the future. Ray Lewis, the player with whom Willis is most often compared, has 25 interceptions over his career. The only question surrounding Willis is his leadership. He is so humble – he’s very much the anti-Lewis in this regard – that’s it’s hard envisioning him becoming a vocal leader in the locker room. Still, that characteristic seemed to work just fine for Bryant Young.
Next: The defensive backs
-- Matt Barrows