49ers DC Ryans makes Hall of Fame case for Patrick Willis


Patrick Willis is in his third year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On Thursday, the former 49ers legend was named a finalist for the first time. 

From one former linebacker to another, if it was up to 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, Willis would already be enshrined in Canton, Ohio. 

"I think it's a no-brainer that Patrick is a Hall of Famer," Ryans said Thursday. 

Whether it was during his college days at Ole Miss -- healthy or hurt -- or his NFL career, Ryans saw one thing every single year with Willis: A dominant linebacker. 

As a 10-year pro himself, Ryans knows what makes the best linebackers in football. Willis had it all. 

"He's always been a dominant player -- college, all the way through his time in the NFL," Ryans said. "Patrick is one of the best linebackers to play the game. You talk about speed, you talk about physicality, you talk about smart -- he's everything that you want in an inside linebacker. He set the tone for the defense here.

"For the eight, nine years that he was here -- he was that guy. He was the leader of this defense and it was just always fun to watch him."

Ryans was selected by the Houston Texans in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft. The next year, the 49ers made Willis the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Willis was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, along with making the Pro Bowl and being named an All-Pro his first season in the league. 


In fact, Willis made the Pro Bowl his first seven years in San Francisco -- up until a toe injury cut his 2014 season short. That would be his final year in the NFL. 

Willis retired following the 2014 season as a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker and was named All-Pro five times in his eight seasons. 

Without Willis knowing, he also was a big help to Ryans, a linebacker trying to reach the same level as him. 

"Even when I was playing, coach Johnny Holland ... I was struggling at the time with tackles, open-field tackling at the time. He makes a DVD for me, and it's of Patrick Willis," Ryans said. "Just studying Patrick and how he tackled.

"It's a guy I definitely respect, I have the utmost respect for Patrick and I can't say enough things about him. I know he's a great man off the field. I know he's always been a tremendous teammate and one of the premier linebackers in the league." 

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Ryans certainly wasn't the first to turn on Willis' highlights in awe, and he won't be the last. 

Willis recently was inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame. A second hall and a gold jacket would be just as welcome in 2022.

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