Jon Beason vs. Patrick Willis: The Next Great Debate

Willis

By Andy Benoit – www.NFLTouchdown.com

Down the road. Oh, down the road. Hard to imagine how great they’ll both be. But you know what? We don’t need to think down the road; they’re actually ready now. Both of them.

One of them you’re familiar with. He’s the one out west who burst onto the scene on Monday Night in Week 1 last season before going on to claim NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The other you’ve heard of but may not have yet encountered. He’s the one back east who terrorized opponents after the leaves turned.

They’re both ready, which means we need to be ready. The debate is in place. Preemptive as it may seem, it is a debate that will fully legitimize by the end of this season. It will touch the sports bars, message boards, talk radio shows – you name it. It’s a debate that football purists will grow to love. Fans on both sides will be fervid in their stance.

It is inevitable – these guys are just too damn good. Initially, it will be Who is the game’s best inside linebacker. But there might simply be too much talent between the two for the debate not to spill over into Who is the game’s best defensive player period. Ultimately, this debate will be what we take away from the rookie class of 2007.

Does this all sound iffy? Perhaps then you need to meet the subjects.

Patrick Willis

The good news for the rest of the NFL is that it wasn’t as easy for Patrick Willis as he made it look. Really.

“At first it was really hard. I was frustrated, I didn’t understand how the 3-4 worked,” he says. “It was tough:I had some discussions with my coaches, it didn’t go too well and I remember just telling myself ‘either I learn it or I don’t play’ or ‘I learn it or I go home.'”

As the 11th overall pick he actually thought he’d be told to go home?

“That’s what I thought. As time went on, the older guys said, ‘Patrick you got picked high, you aren’t going to be sent home.'”

For a long time, home had been Bruceton, Tennessee, where Willis grew up as the oldest of four children. But for the past four years of his life, home had been Lafayette, Mississippi, where he was the middle linebacker in the Rebels’ 4-3 defense. At Ole Miss, Willis was the man of the house.

Blessed with preternatural ball instincts and the type of speed they say you can’t coach, he became one of the fiercest tacklers in the SEC. Coming out, coaches and scouts also raved about his leadership and tenacity. A caveat, however, were concerns about his diagnostic abilities and instincts – concerns the rookie did little to dispel when forced into a foreign 3-4 scheme early in training camp.

“I came in thinking that I could just use speed, agility and learn it, and that wasn’t the case at all,” Willis says. “It took me learning the game from a whole other perspective:it was an awakening.”

Now, a grain of salt is needed here. After all, Willis recorded 50 tackles through his first five games, making any serious talk about his initial struggles akin to griping about Mozart not writing his first cantata until he was 17. Willis was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after finishing the season as the league’s leading tackler (174) and being one of just 35 players to play every snap for his team on his side of the ball.

This past spring, while speaking about other personnel on the roster, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan casually stated to a group of reporters that “Patrick Willis is arguably the best defensive player in the league.”

More telling, perhaps, is the high praise Willis draws from venerable assistant head coach/defense, Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker: “To me, he’s definitely a throwback to what the game really used to be all about. He’s about working hard, making it hard and being a team player.”

This isn’t to say that Willis is not without flaws. His coverage skills are solid, but factor out his raging athleticism and you see they’re really closer to average. He could also stand to make more plays at or behind the line of scrimmage in run defense, something that will come with experience and an improved supporting cast.

“Patrick is not special yet,” says Singletary. “He will be. What will make him special is his work ethic and his humility.”

It’s hard to visit with Willis with coming away impressed. The 23-year-old – who addresses everyone as sir or ma’am – speaks with a sense of humility that is so pure, so genuine, you wonder if he even knows how gifted he is.

“I think there’s so much more to the game that I’m yet to learn,” Willis says. “I think that last year was just a scratch of the surface.” As he gains a better understanding of NFL offenses and builds up more wisdom behind the almost eerie calm that he exudes on the field, Willis won’t be able to avoid a collision with greatness.

Asked what people will be saying about his weak-inside linebacker five years from now, Singletary replies “Don’t know. Scary thought.”

Jon Beason

There aren’t a lot of players who can come out of Miami after three years, be drafted in the mid-twenties of the first round, wear number 52 and dominate at the middle linebacker position. In fact, so far, there have been only two. Chances are, you’ve heard of the first one. And, chances are, you’ll be hearing a lot more of the second.

“When I went to Miami, people wanted to compare me to Ray Lewis,” says Panthers second-year star Jon Beason. “I look at him and when I talk to him, that fire he has, he’s the one who controls that locker room. If I can be that guy where they say ‘Oh, Ray’s passed the torch’:”
Beason cuts himself off and chuckles at the road he’s about to go down.

“Or, or, maybe, um, you know, (where people say) ‘this guy, he’s starting to look like Ray’ – because Ray’s still playing with fire:”

(Good save, young ‘Cane)

“But you know, I definitely want to have that type of impact, were a guy leads a team on a defense.”

Perhaps the 23-year-old from Miramar, Florida is the second coming of Ray Lewis. Or, equally as intriguing, what if he’s the first coming Jon Beason?

Only a limited number of NFL fans have witnessed the magnificence of the 237-pounder. After all, Charlotte, North Carolina is not exactly where the NFL’s hype roars loudest. Beason and the Panthers appeared on national television just once last year – if you count a Saturday night matchup on NFL Network as national television. While America was looking away, Beason was blowing up blockers, choking passing lanes and recording tackle on top of tackle (he finished the season with 140, third in the NFL).

Physically speaking, Beason has all the prerequisites of a luminous NFL linebacker. His quickness in all four cardinal directions is terrific. He’s strong and fundamentally sound, which allows him to consistently win battles at the point of attack. And, most enticing of all, his athleticism seems to augment as he closes in on the ball. That is, he finishes plays with violent authority.

“I like to consider myself to be a fast linebacker, sideline to sideline, make plays, chase the ball,” Beason says. “And when I’m in the middle, I have an opportunity to make every one.”

Beason takes great pride in being the middle piece in Carolina’s front seven – “In a 4-3 defense, the Mike’s the guy,” he says – but it wasn’t until Week 5 that he had his opportunity to play inside. An outside linebacker at Miami (and a safety and running back in high school), Beason began his NFL career on the weak side. He was asked on the Wednesday before a trip to New Orleans if he could slide to the middle, where he’d be responsible for orchestrating the defense.

“That first game:I made a bunch of mistakes,” he recalls. “We had to call timeout a couple of times, I didn’t get the signal or didn’t make a check or made some coverage mistakes, maybe a different gap, but I can play hard, and that factors.”

That day, it factored into a game-high 13 tackles and a Carolina victory, prompting the coaching staff to make the obvious decision of turning the long-term deed to their defense over to the prodigious rookie.

“Jon is the quarterback of our defense,” says Panthers linebacker coach Ken Flajole. “We rely on him to customize the call from the sidelines if he sees an alignment, stance, formation, etc. He has natural instincts for playing the game. He understands what the offense is trying to accomplish:and has a great feel for lanes that take him to the play.”

Never mind down the road – what will we see from Beason in 2008? “Right now I’m working extremely hard, training even harder than I did last year, just because of the simple fact that everyone talks about the sophomore slump,” Beason says. “I know by any stretch of the imagination I’m not a fluke. I want to be one of the top guys every year, right up there with the best of them.”

The Table is Set

If you haven’t already linked the two, go ahead and do so. It would be wasteful not to. The inside linebacker is the sexiest defensive position in football. It’s where the schematic adjustments derive and the most tackle opportunities reside. The past 10 years, football fans have not had an opportunity to debate who is the game’s most dominant inside linebacker. Ray Lewis, then eventually Brian Urlacher, left no doubt.

Lewis, however, is 33 and has lost the oomph that made him legendary. Urlacher remains the class of the position, but chronic neck and back pain seem destined to change that. Seattle’s Lofa Tatupu and Houston’s DeMeco Ryans are both stars in their own right, though the former tends to play reckless at times, and the latter is still learning to make impact plays on a consistent basis.

Insert the aforementioned second-year gems. Both have mastered their responsibilities and have surpassed the towering expectations coming from within their own organizations. Both are über-talented to the point that, by the end of this season, they’ll be without a single exploitable weakness. Given that they both represent the rookie class of ’07, a career full of comparisons seems unavoidable.

“(Jon’s) a good football player. I like him as a person as well,” says Willis. “He’s real aggressive, he just makes plays. He reminds me of myself a lot.”

Asked if the association with the more heralded Willis is annoying, Beason, a man as competitive and honest as you’ll find, ponders the question. “It would have earlier before I met him.” He goes on to cite how Willis came into the league with more experience and did not have to beat out a veteran, but rather, was awarded his starting inside job on Day One.

“I can take all that stuff and be bitter about it,” Beason says, “but meeting Patrick at the (NFL Rookie) Symposium, he was in my small group, he’s such a good dude, such a hard worker, he deserves everything that’s happened for him.

“I’m always going to compete to be the best:but if people want to say my name in the same breath as his, that’s fine by me. It’s good company because I like his game. If I didn’t think he was a good player it’d be another thing, but he’s great.”

Yeah, but who is The Best?


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11 Responses to “Jon Beason vs. Patrick Willis: The Next Great Debate”

  1. Andrew says:

    It should be noted that Willis actually did have to beat out a veteran to earn his position. He was originally behind Derek Smith on the depth chart, but by the end of the preseason he was moved into the starting lineup at Mike and Smith was moved over to Ted.

  2. cchave says:

    yeah that part about not having to beat out a veteran is completely false. he earned is starting job just like beason, only he did it from day one.

    Patrick Willis Is Better

  3. Bryce says:

    Honestly, how many rookies on the defensive side of the ball don’t “start” behind a veteran on the roster? When you look at it, yes, Willis did earn his spot, but Beason wasn’t saying he didn’t work for it, but Beason had a much more difficult position to attain. First of all, MLB was not the position he was drafted for, secondly, Dan Morgan was the starter, and, when healthy, there is no comparison between him and Derek Smith (not that he’s ever healthy), and third, Carolina uses a 4-3 and San Francisco uses 3-4, so Beason had to become the quarterback of the defense, while Willis was fighting for one of two inside linebacker positions.

    But arguing about that tiny little fact is missing the point of the article…this will be a great debate down the road, even as early as next offseason. Willis was leading tackler of the NFL his rookie year. Beason holds the Panthers single-season tackle total while only starting 11 games. They both look to have what it takes to be incredible, hall of fame linebackers, I’m excited to see how it turns out.

  4. Panther Fan says:

    Was it beason that lead his defense last year to hold the 49ers only to 14 points last year and willis and his crew allowed us to get 31 who is better? I think beason, we had less points allowed on our defense last year. so i think statistics show that beason is better.

  5. 49er Fan says:

    You’re forgetting, Panther Fan, that in that game Willis had 18 tackles. Beason had 7. Who helped their team more?

    oh, and those 6 turnovers we had weren’t really attributed to Patrick’s play now were they?

    Sorry, but as of right now, Willis>Beason. It will be fun to compare them for their careers.

  6. Panther Fan says:

    See the Panthers have a much better linebacker core then the 49ers. It doesn’t take talent to be the first one to get the tackle when everyone else on your team can’t do it. Beason has to actually try for every tackle. Willis kind of walks for it.

  7. 49er Fan says:

    hahaha, watch some of last years games before you tell me Willis doesn’t earn his tackles, that he “walks” for it. You’re argument is ridiculous, not that saying Beason>Willis is blasphemy but you’ve just been pulling stuff out of your behind to back up your case.

  8. june says:

    willis is way better beason is good but willis is great he is a once in a life time player da 49ers best draft pick since jerry rice his speed size strength and instincts is second 2 none and by da end of there careers it wont even be a issue willis will be da greatest of all time end of subject

  9. Gelder says:

    Both these guys are gonna be awesome players..well, in fact they already are. Panther Fan, you have to realize one thing though, Willis is DROY.. and Beason wasn’t..the coaches obviously know a little more these players then we do. They voted for Willis.

    I’m not a Niners fan..but that was a pretty dumb arguement saying hes better because Carolina beat the 49ers. If I’m not mistaken..didn’t Chris Weinke start againt the Panthers that day? An all time Panther legend! ….. yeahhh

  10. WILLIS KILLS says:

    WILLIS is not even close, i hate when people say that Willis only had a lot of tackles because there defense was on the field majority of the game. True, but don’t discredit him for all his accomplishments. Leading the league in Tackles as a ROOk and doing it all with a broken hand. WILLIS EQUALS GOAT

  11. Frisco says:

    Look up 06 regular season monday night football 49ers vs Cardinal in over-time.
    Look up 49ers vs Seahawks regular season 08 and ask yourself, should this even be a “debate”. 5 years from now people will realize Patrick willis was the best thing to hit the nfl since bill walsh and his west coast offense. funny how they both came to the west coast.