|NFL DRAFT: Busy Niners land LB Willis, then trade up for OT Staley|
|Written by Admin|
|Saturday, 28 April 2007 14:56|
The 49ers selected Willis, the award-winning Mississippi linebacker, with the 11th overall pick in Saturday's draft. San Francisco then pulled a surprise, trading next year's first-round pick and a fourth-rounder this year for New England's 28th overall selection - which they used on Staley, a powerful offensive tackle from Central Michigan.
Both players spent a week in January with coach Mike Nolan and his staff in Alabama, where the 49ers' coaches have twice served as volunteer coaches at the Senior Bowl, the all-star game where dozens of prospects show off their skills.
After watching Willis and Staley during those practices three months ago, the 49ers decided both players can be cornerstones of the future - even though Staley had no idea he made such an impression on the 49ers.
``There's a common theme here,'' Nolan acknowledged.
Willis spent time after Senior Bowl practices with 49ers assistant Mike Singletary, who knows linebackers. Offensive line coach George Warhop had glowing reviews for Staley, so the 49ers made a move to acquire two first-round picks for the second straight season.
Once Willis got over the excitement of being around the former Chicago Bears star, he realized Singletary has plenty to teach him.
``I got to know him really well,'' Willis said. ``I'm ready to go there and give him everything I've got, and give the organization everything I have.''
Willis was named the SEC's defensive player of the year after leading the league in tackles for two straight seasons, and Nolan believes he'll eventually become the ball-hawking weak-side linebacker that's critical to San Francisco's 3-4 defense. He'll compete with 11-year starter Derek Smith for the No. 1 job in training camp - and Willis believes he'll win it.
``I still can't even believe it,'' said Willis, who also won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker. ``My heart's still beating hard. I'm just so excited to get out there. It's been a dream of mine since I was a little boy.''
In Willis, Nolan claimed he got the top player on his draft board - a physical, speedy tackler with all the skills necessary to fill any role on the defense. The 49ers figure Willis eventually will form a formidable linebacker tandem with Manny Lawson, their first-round draft pick last season.
``He'll make an impact right away as a third-down linebacker,'' Nolan said. ``On first and second downs, he'll compete for a spot, but he should make an impact on us right away.''
Singletary praised Willis' work ethic and enthusiasm, but stopped short of comparing Willis to himself.
``He certainly makes our defense faster,'' Singletary said. ``He certainly adds speed. It gives us some versatility. Wherever the ball is, there's a good chance he's going to be around it. He has good vision, and he has all the intangibles - the speed, the desire and the instinct to find the football.''
The Niners' biggest surprise was their risky move to get Staley, a converted tight end who became a dominant 310-pound left tackle with the Chippewas of the Mid-American Conference.
Nolan sacrificed his 2008 first-round pick and this season's 110th overall pick to land Staley, who probably will replace Kwame Harris as the 49ers' starting right tackle this fall. Nolan then swung a deal with his second-round pick to acquire Indianapolis' first-round pick next season.
Staley, whose 4.7-second time in the 40-yard dash made him the fastest offensive lineman at the combine, was as surprised as San Francisco's fans to hear he was headed to the West Coast. He enjoyed playing for Warhop at the Senior Bowl, but never thought the partnership would continue.
``I didn't really know that they were interested,'' Staley said. ``I'm glad the 49ers traded up and picked me. I got a little taste of their offense when I was down at the Senior Bowl, and I'm just excited to get started.''