49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis is arguably the best in the game: since his induction to the league in 2007, he has won tackle titles, five Pro Bowl invitations, achieved four-time first team All-Pro status and was AP Defensive Rookie of the Year. Willis is also the only player in history to win the Butkus Award in both college and the NFL (2006 and 2009).
He now has some playoff experience under his belt, too.
But one of the things that has eluded Willis—other than a Super Bowl Championship—is Defensive Player of the Year honors. An idol of Willis' is Ray Lewis, who has taken the award home not once, but twice.
When one looks at the list of the players who have won the award in the past decade, it does seem like Willis' name is missing from the list.
Since 2000, the awards have gone to: Ray Lewis, Michael Strahan, Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Brian Urlacher, Jason Taylor, Bob Sanders, James Harrison, Charles Woodson, Troy Polamalu and Terrell Suggs.
Last year, the All-Pro linebacker wasn't even the candidate representing the San Francisco 49ers; defensive lineman Justin Smith was.
Willis also didn't play in all 16 games of the regular season and was slightly overshadowed by the coming out year by counterpart NaVorro Bowman.
As we can see by the list of defensive MVPs, they are often awarded for great linebacking play and leadership. 7 of the past 12 winners were linebackers, and three times it went to an inside linebacker and team captain.
Willis is certainly a candidate that may come up for consideration in 2012, but it will have to be accompanied by team success.
The 49ers will have to win games again, and Willis will have to have either more sacks or interceptions, along with leading San Francisco in tackles. Willis being able to stay healthy will also play a factor, cause had he last year, Bowman might not have led in tackles.
Last season, the 49ers defense was not playing in a finished system; defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had said there was more to install. He also made note that Willis could become a better blitzing linebacker, that would help him complete his game.
With a full offseason and OTAs, I do believe Willis could have a strong campaign in 2012. He'll improve his technique—believe it or not—and blossom into a better blitzing and cover linebacker. He is someone that is always trying to improve his game, and I expect he will.
If the 49ers make another deep playoff run and Willis has not only remained consistent, but looked to be the clear cut best linebacker in the league, I could see him making a hard charge at Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
Especially considering how disappointed he was that he didn't get the Madden cover.
Follow me on Twitter: @DeSimone80