The 49ers' 2007 rookie class was something special.
Five-time First-Team All-Pro linebacker was drafted in the first round (No. 11 overall), and so was recently retired left tackle Joe Staley (No. 28). Both players landed on the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2010s.
They weren't alone, either. Fourth-round pick Dashon Goldson was First-Team All-Pro in 2012, while defensive end Ray McDonald (third-rounder) and cornerback Tarrell Brown (fifth-rounder) played a combined 232 NFL games.
The mere mention of those names still affects Willis.
“Man, I just got the chills now just hearing you call out those names,” Willis said Tuesday while speaking to local media following Staley's retirement. “I never forget just showing up with those guys, and just the feeling that I had understanding that it doesn’t matter where we were drafted at, we’re all here to do one thing, and that’s to make this football team together and hopefully win.”
Staley made a lasting impression on Willis in their first meeting. Before playing a single snap against one another in practice, Willis was in awe of the former Central Michigan tackle's size and stature.
“My favorite memory of Joe would probably be the first encounter,” Willis said. “We both got drafted and then we had to show up the next day, and I landed before he did, but he wasn’t too far behind me.
“Come up to the escalator at SFO and I remember turning around and seeing him, and I thought to myself, like ‘Man, they made sure to get a guy big enough so I could go against [him] in practice.’ That was the first one, just seeing him, just his presence.”
Willis said he loved being teammates with Staley, noting that the tackle found the perfect balance of fun and professionalism. Staley could make any of his teammates laugh or crack a smile at any point, but they also could rely upon him in big moments.
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You don't need to look any further than the 2011 NFC Divisional Round. Staley's incredible block on then-New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper sprung open a path for then-49ers quarterback Alex Smith to score a go-ahead touchdown on a designed bootleg.
Staley's block was so good that Willis was convinced it wouldn't count.
“Obviously for me, that was one of the biggest games of my career, playing with Joe, and to see him throw that block," Willis said. "And me, when I saw him throw the block I remember thinking, ‘Man, is that legal? Are they going to throw a flag?’ ”
“It was a perfect block and just how we scored. Oh my gosh. I was just so excited for multiple reasons, and the fact that it was Joe leading the way.”
The 49ers would win that game, advancing to the NFC Championship in Staley and Willis' playoff debuts. San Francisco made it to two more NFC Championship Games and was a late drive away from beating the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Staley, Willis and the 2007 draft class led the way.