The 49ers, who were preparing to have both of their Pro Bowl inside linebackers return from injury this year, now may only get one of them back.
That's because Patrick Willis is contemplating retirement, according to a league source and first reported by Yahoo Sports. That Willis, who went to the Pro Bowl in his first seven seasons, would step away from the game at age 30 is partly due to the same toe injury that sidelined him last season. Willis started six games in 2014 but soon went on injured reserve due to an injured left, big toe.
Willis also wants to work with children in his native Tennessee, the source said. His Tweets in recent weeks have been contemplative and spiritual in nature. An example from Saturday: “Understanding the key to restoring your Hope for your ideas... Understand what u know and then learn some more...never stop learning tho! #Embrace #Zeal #Potential #Trinity #ConceptofPrinciples #TheGoodnews #TheGoodPrinciples #GodsPrinciples”
The source said Willis has been talking about retirement for some time.
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At the time of his toe injury Willis acknowledged it was the type of injury that could end a career. But he thought by having surgery he could return to his previous form and have another "six great years." The toe injury, he said, was preventing him from going full speed, which always had been Willis' top asset.
“If you like to get on the pedal a little bit, you tell yourself you can’t do that because if you do, you’re going to blow your tire out,” Willis said. “And that’s kind of how I’ve been playing the last few years. … Maybe at certain times people saw something that was uncharacteristic, but that’s all because I was trying to find a way to compensate to be able to find a way to go out there and play.”
Willis, a first-round pick in 2007, had dealt with numerous broken bones in his hand since playing at Ole Miss. But prior to last season he had missed only six starts in seven seasons -- to a broken hand, a hamstring injury and a groin strain.
That Willis will retire comes as a surprise to the organization and follows on the heels of news that another long-time 49er, running back Frank Gore, will head to Philadelphia on Tuesday. The future of another stalwart player, Justin Smith, also has not been announced but seems dubious. Smith, 35, has been contemplating retirement. He met with team officials Wednesday and the team has been reluctant to say what the decision was.
Willis, Smith and Gore have 17 Pro Bowls among them.
Willis' retirement would free more than $7 million of salary-cap space. NaVorro Bowman still is on track to return from an ACL tear, and it's likely that Bowman and Chris Borland would be penciled in as the starters at inside linebacker.
Willis' decision also likely puts the brakes on a trade of Michael Wilhoite, who would be the team's No. 3 inside linebacker. At least two teams were contemplating a trade for Wilhoite last week.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.