The 49ers were getting ready to play their third preseason game in 2007 and weren’t sure whether to insert their top draft pick, linebacker Patrick Willis, into the starting lineup.
Veteran Brandon Moore started the first two contests that summer. Head coach Mike Nolan was wavering.
“And Mike’s like, ‘Should I start him?’ ” Scot McCloughan, then the team’s personnel chief, recalled Monday. “And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t think he’s ready.’ And I said, ‘We’ll find out.’ ”
Willis started and he indeed was ready. He not only looked comfortable next to veteran Derek Smith with the first-string defense, he led all tacklers in that game with seven stops. He would go on to lead the NFL in tackles that year and was by far the brightest spot on a dreary squad.
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Another rookie inside linebacker, Reuben Foster, had a similar outing Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, finishing with a game-high eight tackles, including a big hit for a five-yard loss on the first snap. The performance had many remembering Willis, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year and a five-time All-Pro First Team selection in his eight-year career.
Foster has not been shy about aspiring to be like Willis, one of his football heroes while growing up.
“I’m trying to be the great, the next Patrick Willis, the next great linebacker in their history,” Foster said on the day he was drafted.
McCloughan, however, said that was a tough comparison for anyone.
Willis had elite speed – he ran a 4.37-second 40 at his pro day – an impressive speed, no matter the position. It’s what allowed him to make tackles all over the field and to famously run down a wide receiver in the open field during his rookie season.
“He could shoot a gap and get to the quarterback in two seconds where a lot of people would take three seconds,” McCloughan said. “It was that type of thing.”
That’s not to say McCloughan, who now runs his own scouting service, is down on Foster. On the contrary, he thought he was the best linebacker in the draft, loves how physical he was at Alabama and how quickly he became “the ringleader” of a talented Crimson Tide defense full of big personalities.
Foster has a sturdier frame and is a more vocal leader than Willis, who was more quiet and introverted and reluctant to take over a room.
“I compare him more to NaVorro (Bowman) than Patrick, because Patrick’s speed was so unique,” McCloughan said.
Both Nolan and his top aide at the time, Mike Singletary, were skeptical about whether Willis was worth the No. 11 overall pick that year because of his smaller build, because he didn’t take on blocks like a traditional middle linebacker and because he had been nicked with injuries in college.
They began to change their minds, however, during the first full padded practice of training camp that summer, one in which Willis quickly showed he was the most physical defender on the field. You could hear the rookie making tackles and laying hits from a half mile away.
“The coaches didn’t want him – ‘He’s too small, he doesn’t take on …,’ ” McCloughan said. “I said, ‘Whatever. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I’m taking him.’ ”