Previewing The 49ers Starters: LB Patrick Willis

On Sunday, we took a look at the leader of the offense: quarterback Alex Smith. We're previewing all the starters on both sides of the ball for the San Francisco 49ers, and what better way to continue than taking a look at the leader on defense: linebacker Patrick Willis.

Last Season: Willis was slightly overshadowed by the insane performance from fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, but all the same, Willis had another great year. He did show certain lapses in coverage, if we're trying to find some fault with him. It seems as he was asked to get a bit more aggressive, his coverage skills suffered, especially when dealing with athletic tight ends. Still, Willis saw another trip to the Pro Bowl and was, at worst, one of the top two linebackers in the NFL.

Big Question: We had a big question for Alex, but there's not a whole lot surrounding Willis. It seems like Bowman caught everyone by surprise, including the 49ers. There's a chance Willis may be asked to keep up the aggression as Bowman settles into that "all over the field" role that Willis has been so good at all these years. Willis might just become a player who either blitzes or covers an athletic tight end, as opposed to being that general patrolling the middle of the field.

Projection: Will Willis ever miss the Pro Bowl at this point? There's a chance, of course, but smart money isn't on him slowing down one bit. If Bowman gets even better than he was last year, then Willis may be overshadowed again, but make no mistake: Willis is set to have a great year, especially if he can avoid the nagging injuries he's had. There's really no safer projection in the NFL at this point.

For more on the San Francisco 49ers, join the discussion over at Niners Nation. You can also check out everything we have to offer at SB Nation's NFL hub.

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