Willis retirement hits 49ers in the gut

San Francisco’s defense took a big hit long before the first snap of the season Monday, as reports indicate both LB Patrick Willis and DT Justin Smith are considering retiring from the NFL.

Smith’s retirement comes as no surprise, as the 35-year old veteran has been mulling the decision to step away from the physically demanding game for the past couple seasons. With Smith’s move seeming likely, the 49ers signed DT Darnell Dockett to bolster their defensive line.

Willis’ decision, though, casts an unforeseen cloud over a defensive unit already in flux. Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowler has been one of the team’s leaders both on and off the field. Alongside fellow ILB NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers had sported arguably the best inside linebacker corps in the NFL.

Though the eight-year veteran’s decision to retire surprised both fans and the organization, Willis has been plagued with chronic toe issues, which forced him to undergo season-ending surgery in November after fighting through the first five games of the year.

Willis had been reportedly making strides in his rehab, but the lingering injury may have proven too much for the former 11th overall pick of the 2007 draft to overcome. Willis, who was signed through the 2016, walks away from a remaining $15 million left on his contract across the next two years.

The dominating play of ILB Chris Borland during his rookie campaign slightly softens the blow of Willis’ departure. The 49ers third-round draft pick led the team with 128 tackles, while also notching a pair of interceptions. Borland is also well equipped to take over Willis’ role on the team, having played the “Mike” linebacker position all last year.

The 49ers also tendered a contract to ILB Michael Wilhoite, who started all 16 games in place of the injured Bowman. Wilhoite has played well as a stand-in for the 49ers injured linebackers over the past two seasons. He trailed Borland with 121 tackles last season, tied with S Antoine Bethea.

Willis walks away from the game with an impressive resume, including being selected to the Pro Bowl during his first seven seasons in the NFL, five All-Pro selections, a two-time 49ers MVP and Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He tallied 950 tackles, 20.5 sacks, eight interceptions and 16 forced fumbles in his career.


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