After examining the 49ers' defensive linemen, it's time to look at the group playing behind them. We'll start with the inside linebackers, who, of course, are headlined by two-time Pro Bowler Patrick Willis. Look for the 49ers to keep four, maybe five, inside linebackers.
- Scott McKillop. 6-1, 244. The 49ers have been searching for two years for a future "Ted" linebacker to be the Robin to Willis' Batman. After finding McKillop in the fifth round of the draft, they could hardly contain themselves. Of all the team's draft picks - a list that includes Michael Crabtree, mind you - team officials were most jazzed about McKillop, perhaps because he projects as the perfect complement to Willis. I was on hand for all the Senior Bowl practices this year. A typical running play went something like this: Hand off to the back. Big pile after two yards. Players get up and McKillop is at the bottom with his arms around the runner's ankles.
- Justin Roland. 5-11, 242. Roland, who spent a few weeks on the Texans' practice squad a year ago, is currently playing behind Willis and Jeff Ulbrich at "Mike" linebacker. He's seemed like a solid player in the team's non-contact practices this spring but will need to shine in the preseason to leapfrog Ulbrich. The team also will have three or four spots on the roster that will be determined, in large part, by special teams prowess. An inside linebacker like Roland could find a niche there.
- Takeo Spikes. 6-2, 242. I remember watching Spikes early in the season and thinking, 'man this guy's not very good.' I was wrong. What I was seeing was someone who came into training camp late and had to learn a defense on the fly. It took Spikes until the fourth game of the season to master the new scheme. At that point he was inserted into the starting lineup and it seemed as if he had played "Ted" all his life. Spikes tied for second on the team in total tackles, tied for first on the team in interceptions and proved that there was plenty of football left in his 31 year-old body. (He's 32 now). Spikes also is an asset inside the locker room. He is a very passionate and stirring speaker - something the 49ers have lacked in recent seasons - and is almost Ray Lewis-esque in that regard. The fact that he has never been to the playoffs but believes this 49ers team can break that ignominious streak is a motivational plus for the young players around him.
A former wrestler, McKillop definitely has the grit for one of the more blue-collar positions on the team. What he showed this spring is perhaps more athleticism than he was given credit for entering the draft. As Takeo Spikes proved last year with three interceptions, the "Ted" linebacker has plenty of pass-coverage duties and can be a big playmaker in the passing game. At least early on, McKillop has shown he can keep pace with running backs and tight ends downfield.
The bottom line is that Willis has shown he has Hall of Fame potential. To reach that summit, he needs to play a long time and he needs to have good players around him. McKillop won't play a lot on defense this year unless Spikes gets injured. But he certainly looks like the long-term answer at the position.
-- Matt Barrows