Fans of the 49ers who were laid low by coach Jim Harbaugh’s departure in December are having to absorb a new round of sledgehammers to the solar plexus.
On the heels of Sunday’s reports that running back Frank Gore would leave via free agency came news today that Patrick Willis and perhaps Justin Smith will announce their retirements, fullback Bruce Miller had been arrested on suspicion of spousal battery and free-agent guard Mike Iupati likely will join the division-rival Arizona Cardinals.
Willis’ retirement was reported by several outlets, although there was no official announcement. The inside linebacker, who twice led the NFL in tackles but who was sidelined last year because of a toe injury, likely will hold a news conference later this week.
Smith has been contemplating retirement for some time. The veteran defensive end said Monday he will decide by next week. Coaches are trying to work out an arrangement that would limit the toll to Smith’s body, including a limited practice schedule.
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There also were multiple reports that Gore is reconsidering a handshake deal with the Philadelphia Eagles that was reported Sunday. The new suitor appears to be the Indianapolis Colts, which would reunite Gore with one of his former University of Miami coaches, Rob Chudzinski, who runs Indianapolis’ offense.
Gore, Willis and Smith have been selected to a combined 17 Pro Bowls, and at least one has been a team captain over the past four seasons. Their departures would mean a loss of leadership as well as talent.
Willis, 30, sat out most of last season after surgery on the strained big toe on his left foot, but the news that he might retire came as a surprise. Willis said last year he figured he had “five or six more great years of football left in my body,” and the team was planning for him to play in 2015.
At the time of the injury, Willis also acknowledged how troubling it was, especially for a linebacker known for his speed.
“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 draft pick in 2007, has had numerous broken bones in his hand since playing at Mississippi. But before last season, he had missed only six starts in seven NFL seasons.
He has spoken to friends and teammates recently about wanting to work with children in his native Tennessee. His social media accounts in recent weeks have been filled with contemplative and spiritual posts.
Willis chose No. 52 as a rookie, partly in recognition of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who also wore the number and who at the time was considered the best inside linebacker in the NFL.
For a time, Willis took over that designation, and he also took on a leadership role with the 49ers, although not as vocally as Lewis with the Ravens. Even when he was on injured reserve last year, Willis often gave the team’s pregame speech on the field.
Who will lead the 49ers into the future?
Team officials would love quarterback Colin Kaepernick – heretofore standoffish with the media – to take on a bigger role. Veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman, coming off an ACL injury, and left tackle Joe Staley would be natural fits as well.
Chris Borland, a third-round draft pick in 2014, led the 49ers in tackles despite just eight starts last season and is the favorite to take over Willis’ spot at inside linebacker. Willis’ departure seemingly would put a brake on a possible trade of Michael Wilhoite, who started 16 games last season.
It also would create an additional $7.4 million in salary cap space that might allow the 49ers to be more aggressive in free agency than they initially planned.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.