JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -When asked about his time in the 40-yard dash last winter, Mississippi's Patrick Willis played coy, wanting to keep it a secret until spring workouts.
When the linebacker ran the 40 for pro scouts last month in 4.37 seconds, the secret was out: The 240-pound Willis is not only faster than most wide receivers and defensive backs in the league, he's faster than most players.
That's just one of the many reasons he probably will be taken in the top half of the NFL draft's first round Saturday, a rare happening for an inside linebacker.
``He was lights out,'' NFL draft analyst and former Dallas Cowboys player personnel director Gil Brandt said. ``People left that workout and that was as good a workout as they've ever seen by an individual player. I'm not going to say it's the best, but it was outstanding to say the least.''
Most analysts who play the tricky game of guessing where prospects will go had Willis pegged in January near the end of the first round. But with each workout, team visit and personal interview, the former Rebel has rocketed his way up the charts.
Unlike some likely high-end picks, he has taken every opportunity to show the scouts what he can do. Some analysts now project him to go as high as 11th or 12th to the 49ers or Bills and he seems to be a lock for the top half of the first round.
``He made himself a lot of money,'' Brandt said.
The difference in money from the middle to the end of the first round is millions of dollars. The contracts for picks 11 through 14 in the 2006 draft averaged about $4 million a year, not counting incentives.
The players picked at the end of that round received average contracts of about $2 million a year.
So Willis' hard work could net him $10 million to $12 million over the life of his first contract.
The salary figures are outlandish to the 2006 Butkus Award winner. As a child growing up in rural Tennessee, he chopped cotton alongside his grandmother in the summertime to help support his family. A seven-figure salary never passed through his dreams, even on the hottest day.
Now that the money is just a short time away, he can't help but plan what to do with it. He'll keep his 1996 sports utility vehicle for use around home, but he will buy himself a nice ride in his new town.
He'll also take care of his grandmother, Mary Louise Willis Blankenship, of Huntingdon, Tenn., and the handful of others who helped him through a difficult childhood that included an abandonment by his mother.
``I'm going to get my grandmother something new to live in and pay off her car note for her,'' he said. ``And (I'll) do some things for the ones that have been there for me and the ones that I love that I know love me also.''
Willis' agent, Ben Dogra, regularly checks in with team sources to chart the progress of his clients. He said he's being told that analyst projections about Willis seem accurate.
``I think he did everything right in the postseason process to try to help himself up,'' the agent said. ``And as the teams did their homework and evaluated him more and more, they saw exactly what we saw.''
If Willis is taken high in the first round, as predicted, he will have flouted the NFL's conventional wisdom. Middle linebackers aren't often taken in the first round despite their overall importance to the defense as primary signal-caller.
Just two inside linebackers, the Bears' Brian Urlacher (ninth) and Jonathan Vilma (12th) of the Jets, have been taken in the first round since 2000. And only seven have been taken in the first round in the last 10 years.
Willis is likely to join that group of exceptions, Brandt said, because he seems to be the rare inside linebacker who cannot only stop the run, but drop back into pass coverage.
``If I were a gambling man, I'd say he's the first linebacker picked,'' Brandt said.

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