Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
It didn’t take long for Aldon Smith to prove his worth as a pass-rusher, breaking onto the scene as a situational player in 2011. But over the past two years in particular, it seems that he’s separated himself from the rest of the pack. He looks like the best pass-rusher in the game. If there is a candidate out there to break the NFL’s single-season sack record, it’s No. 99.
Smith is in line for his second full season as a starter in 2014.
There’s a lot of talent on this roster, but if there is one man who needs no introduction, it’s Patrick Willis. The team captain will return for his eighth season, directing traffic on his side of the field and destroying the will (and bodies) of his opponent.
The three-time All-Pro linebacker will be entering his fourth season (yes, you read that correctly). NaVorro Bowman is one of the best in the game at his position—maybe the best. He can run sideline to sideline as good as anyone but has also shown a knack for playing back in coverage, blitzing and coming up with big plays in very clutch situations.
Unfortunately, he suffered a gruesome ACL tear in the NFC Championship Game versus the Seattle Seahawks and is now at risk of missing part of the 2014 regular season.
Much like his partner in crime Ray McDonald, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks is another player who just doesn’t get enough credit. He makes a sizable impact every time he steps out there, and like Bowman, he has the clutch gene. Brooks will enter his fourth year as a starter, manning the edge opposite Aldon Smith.
Get to know this name, if you don’t already. One of the reserve players who most impressed this past year was inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite of little Washburn University. He stepped up in all phases. His primary duty in 2013 was on special teams, where he excelled.
After speaking with Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, he informed me that Wilhoite was actually the engine that made the Tony Montana Squad run in 2013. He was a top performer and tackle leader up there with safety C.J. Spillman. But when asked to step into the starting lineup, Wilhoite wowed there, too.
He filled in for Patrick Willis for two games and made 20 tackles.
The reason we bring Wilhoite up again is because many are concerned about the inside linebacker position with Bowman rehabbing. However, there is no need to worry with strong depth inside.
Wilhoite is the best reserve inside backer that the team has had, probably ever. If he gets the nod in Week 1, get excited to watch No. 57 fly around and hit.