The 49ers' NaVorro Bowman is a two-time All-Pro selection at inside linebacker. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Patrick Willis is a six-time All-Pro, considered by many to be the best inside linebacker in the NFL.
Ever since he was taken by the 49ers in the first round of the 2007 draft, Willis has been one of the league’s most consistent and outstanding defensive playmakers.
Together with NaVorro Bowman, Willis and Bowman have made perhaps the best 1-2 combination of inside linebackers in any 3-4 defense in the NFL since 2010, when Bowman was a rookie.
Now, some believe that Bowman is better than Willis.
First, it was former NFL and 49ers linebacker Matt Millen, who just before the Super Bowl said that he’s a big Willis fan but believes Bowman has passed him.
“I shouldn’t say it’s not even close,” Millen told reporters in late January. “It’s close. But he (Bowman) does some things better than Patrick. And Patrick does a couple things better than he does. But overall, in their game, he (Bowman) disengages quicker (from blockers), he has a little more violence in his hands. But as an inside backer, he’s the best there is.”
Now, NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks – a former NFL player and scout – is saying the same thing.
In a story on the NFL.com site this week examining the best teammate tandems in the league, Brooks including the inside linebacker combination of Willis and Bowman and says: “The dynamic duo has been chiefly responsible for the unit’s success, with a collective ability to control the middle of the field against the run or pass.”
Brooks says Willis is the “heart and soul” of that defense whose toughness and physical play makes him the unit’s leader. But Brooks also points out that Willis sometimes has trouble in pass coverage.
Bowman, meanwhile, has no such weaknesses, and the two-time All-Pro pick is a “tenacious defender with terrific instincts and diagnostic skills.” Brooks also rates him as terrific as a blitzer and in making tackles in open space.
In studying the two of them, Brooks says: “Willis is the marquee players of the 49ers defense, but Bowman is a better overall linebacker on tape.”
Overall, the two inside linebacking standouts last season anchored a four-man linebacking group that also featured Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks on the outside. That’s as good as it gets in the NFL.
Does it make any difference who’s better, Willis or Bowman? Not really. Together, they make a terrific tandem. And with Brooks and Smith it’s a group that should be as good or better in 2013.
“In this era, say the last 10 years, I can’t think of a better unit,” said Millen.