Draft Prospects Who Can Help 49ers Fill Void Left by Willis Retirement
His retirement last week stunned pretty much everyone and leaves the Niners without a player who will be difficult to replace both on the field and as a leadership presence in the locker room.
Of course, San Francisco already has Willis' direct on-field replacement in Chris Borland, who filled in magnificently when Willis was kept out of the lineup by a toe injury that played a role in his decision to a call it a career.
Other players will be required to step up and take on the leadership duties Willis performed to such a high standard during his eight seasons in the NFL; however, his departure has left the 49ers with a lack of quality depth behind the starting pair of Borland and NaVorro Bowman.
Indeed, Michael Wilhoite endured a below-par season when taking the place of Bowman last term, while Nick Moody is little more than a special teams player and cannot be relied upon to contribute on defense.
The Niners obviously have far more pressing areas of need than inside linebacker, but should Bowman struggle in his comeback from a torn ACL or Borland endure something of a sophomore slump, then the team's shaky depth at the position could become exposed.
With that in mind, it would be wise for the 49ers to draft another inside backer to back up Borland and Bowman or an outside backer capable of contributing immediately to allow Ahmad Brooks to potentially kick inside if needed.
Here are some of the candidates from the 2015 class who could help fill the void left by Willis.
Most would see Denzel Perryman's short, squatty frame as a disadvantage for an inside linebacker, yet he was able to use it to his benefit while with the Miami Hurricanes.
At 5'11" and 236 pounds, Perryman is not overly blessed with athleticism; however, while his lack of size has been a disadvantage in man coverage and occasionally when fronting up blockers, he has turned his small frame into a tool he can use to slip through small holes and find the ball-carrier.
That is just one example of how this instinctive and hard-nosed linebacker has been successful so far in his career. Perryman received third-team All-American honors following a 2014 season that saw him put up 110 total tackles (79 solo) 9.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception.
On tape, it is easy to see why Perryman caused offenses so many problems. He is a downhill linebacker who keeps his eyes on the play at all times and has a superb nose for the football, displaying excellent read-and-react ability and regularly delivering a violent hit upon contact.
NFL teams should love his combination of aggression and instincts, although his determination does sometimes lead him to overpursue and fail to make the play. Below-average speed is also an issue for Perryman, who often comes across as heavy-legged in pursuit.
Still, it is easy to root for a thumper like Perryman, who appears to have the mentality and the football intelligence to make an impact in the pros. He is not going to start straight away in the NFL, but he is ideal backup material for San Francisco. Learning behind an All-Pro in Bowman, Perryman could develop into a successful player at the next level.
All Bryce Hager did in his four-year collegiate career with the Baylor Bears was produce.
A prospect with NFL bloodlines, Hager—the son of former Philadelphia Eagle, Denver Bronco and St. Louis Ram Britt Hager—put up outstanding numbers in college.
In 2012 he recorded a Big-12 high 124 total tackles (72 solo), 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles. After a 2013 season hampered by a sports hernia, he bounced back in 2014 by producing the most productive year of his career.
Hager's final season saw him rack up 114 total tackles (76 solo), 12 tackles for loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception on his way to second-team All Big-12 honors. Despite his consistency, Hager is not slated to enter the NFL as a high draft pick.
CBS Sports views him is a fifth-round pick, and there a number of reasons why he is most likely to be a mid-to-late-round selection in the draft.
While strong, Hager is often too easily locked up by offensive lineman and appears slow to diagnose plays. He does not possess the same level of read-and-react skills that made Borland such a success in Year 1 with the Niners. Additionally, Hager regularly takes bad angles in pursuit and does not have the speed to be effective as a north-south player.
Yet he does have plenty of traits that will make him attractive to NFL teams. He flies to the ball when he does read the play and looked particularly impressive when rushing Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook from the interior in the Cotton Bowl.
Despite his many positive attributes, which include the ability to perform well in man or zone coverage, an NFC area scout reportedly told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein that the only way Hager will be able to play as inside 'backer in the NFL is if a team regularly two-gaps on the defensive line.
San Francisco uses such a defensive system, and after trusting the production when picking up Borland last year, it would be no surprise to see the 49ers do the same again and give Hager a shot.
A disappointing combine has led many to re-evaluate TCU linebacker Paul Dawson, who was one of the most productive players in college football last season.
Dawson was named a Consensus All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year following a campaign in which he amassed 136 tackles (81 solo), along with 20 tackles for loss, six sacks, five pass deflections, four interceptions—including one returned for a touchdown—and two forced fumbles.
Yet, for all his production, there are now some doubts surrounding Dawson on the back of a combine showing that saw him run the 40-yard dash in just 4.93 seconds and record a 28-inch vertical leap. Concerns have also been raised over his character, with Zierlein suggesting that he was not beloved within the Horned Frogs program.
Those issues aside, it is impossible to ignore Dawson's on-field talent. He possesses outstanding instincts, reading the game exceptionally well to stay in the play and make an impact in both run and pass defense. He allowed just 35.7 percent of passes to be completed against him, according to Zierlein, and he used his skills from his days as a high school wide receiver to his advantage to make plays on the ball.
An excellent downhill linebacker who attacks the line of scrimmage and delivers a hard hit upon contact, Dawson is intelligent with his movement, possessing the quick feet to change direction, avoid blocks and find the quickest route through to the ball-carrier.
He's impressive as an interior rusher due to his downhill acceleration and slight frame; the only knocks on Dawson in terms of the on-field product are his long speed and technique in wrapping up in the tackle.
The off-the-field issues, his 6'0" and 235-pound build and his subpar performance at the combine may see Dawson fall down the board, although he has another chance to impress at his March 27 pro day. Nevertheless, that could benefit a team like the Niners, who have taken chances on shaky character guys before and would be well-served to do so again for a player with a proven track record of overcoming his physical limitations.
Benardrick McKinney did not have the production of Dawson or Perryman in 2014 but is slated to be a late-first to second-round pick in the draft.
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah ranks McKinney as his No. 38 player in the draft, which is perhaps surprising given the numbers he put up in his junior year—71 tackles (eight for loss), three sacks and one forced fumble. However, his 6'4" and 246-pound frame and versatility should make the former Mississippi State man a valued commodity among pro teams.
The Bulldogs lined McKinney up as a "Mike" linebacker and as a pass-rusher from the edge. He proved to be a constant thorn in the side of opposing offenses, taking on blockers with his impressive play strength and strong hands in addition to displaying the ability to keep himself involved in the play at all times while also demonstrating good technique in wrapping up ball-carriers.
McKinney ran the 40 in 4.66 seconds at the combine, which makes his apparent lack of explosion on tape even more surprising. Indeed, while he has good straight-line speed, McKinney looks labored when chasing in the open field and does not possess the foot quickness to effectively change direction in tight spaces.
There are also doubts over whether he can perform consistently in coverage; however, for a 49ers team that has long valued versatility on both sides of the ball, his size and capability to operate as both an inside and outside backer make him a viable option should he slide to pick No. 46.
The one thing that is clear about Shaq Thompson is that nothing is really clear about him.
A player without a defined position at the next level, Thompson spent the majority of time at outside linebacker at Washington. However, he is viewed by many as a safety prospect despite not playing there since high school. The Huskies also used him sparingly at running back.
Thompson received the Paul Hornung Award in 2014 for the most versatile college player following a year that saw him find the end zone on six occasions. Three of his scores came from fumble recoveries; one came from an interception, and two were the result of his efforts as a tailback.
An outstanding specimen with tremendous athleticism, Thompson possesses a frightening combination of physical gifts and instincts and was regularly able to win with sheer speed, which he used as an asset in generating pressure off the edge and in pursuit of the ball-carrier.
Effective in zone coverage, his wide range of abilities should appeal greatly to NFL teams, yet there are likely to be considerable concerns over his 6'0" and 226-pound frame, which has often seen him get swallowed up by opposing blockers when blitzing the quarterback and has led many to raise concerns over playing him as a linebacker in the pros.
But there can be no denying that Thompson is a defensive playmaker with the athletic ability and mental intangibles to maintain that status in the NFL. If he can develop his play strength and improve his tackling ability, he could operate as a rusher off the edge or as a safety down in the box, playing a similar role to the Seattle Seahawks' Kam Chancellor in patrolling the middle of the field in a Cover 3.
Having addressed some of its needs in free agency, San Francisco is in a position to take the best player available. Thompson may not be a first-round pick, but if he is there in Round 2, it could be tough for general manager Trent Baalke to pass on a player who has the potential to make up for the loss of Willis by giving the 49ers defense an added dimension.
All collegiate statistics courtesy of Sports Reference.
Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.