Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Patrick Willis: 49ers can return to glory by focusing on defense this offseason

Feb 22, 2021 at 10:50 AM--

Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, one of the best to play the position, recently spoke with Fox News and shared his thoughts on what the Niners' offseason focus should be. San Francisco was in the Super Bowl just over a year ago. It followed up the impressive run with a six-win campaign in 2020.

The 49ers hope to rebound in 2021, and that will start with the upcoming draft. San Francisco owns the No. 12 overall pick. While some feel that head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch might try to target a rookie quarterback, Willis believes his former team can return to glory by focusing on defense this offseason.

That starts with adding a pass rusher to line up opposite the team's young star, defensive end Nick Bosa.

"One the defensive side, I feel like they need another edge rusher that can compliment Nick Bosa," Willis told Fox News. "I know they have a young defensive line. I know they already need another edge presence outside."

Dee Ford was supposed to be that complementary piece. However, the veteran pass rusher appeared in just one game last season due to neck and back injuries, and his future is uncertain. Even if San Francisco wants to get out of Ford's contract, the defender will need to pass a physical by April 1 for the team to avoid being on the hook for $11.6 million of his 2021 salary.

That may not happen.

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Lynch didn't even sound entirely certain that Ford would be healthy for the start of the 2021 season. It's an offseason storyline worth monitoring.

"When you're dealing with that part of your body — the back — sometimes these things take more time," Lynch told reporters in January when asked if Ford would be ready for the 2021 season. "I think Dee tries to stay encouraged, but I think it's been a struggle for him. We try to stay encouraged as well, but I can't tell you with great absolute (certainty) that, yeah, he's going to be ready. We're working hard, and he's working hard to try to get there."

Willis is among those who feel Ford's future with the 49ers is murky.

"I'm not sure Dee Ford, if he's going to be that guy because again, he missed a lot of games when you talk about health-wise," Willis explained. "So I could see them going with an outside presence or a pass rusher — someone to compliment Bosa."

Willis also shared his thoughts on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, which Kirk Larrabee thoroughly covered here. Whether Garoppolo is on the roster or not, Willis still feels the focus should be on the defensive side, noting that the impending departure of Richard Sherman could lead to a focus on cornerback.

"We need to win now, and we need to win a lot in order for us to stay relevant," Willis said. "I could almost see them either button-up that defense and say [to Garoppolo] we're going to give you another year to showcase what you can do, or they just say you know what we're gonna beef up the defense and maybe bring in a new quarterback and build around him."

Willis believes that bolstering the defense can lead to another division championship. However, if the 49ers use their first selection on offense, he feels it should be on an offensive tackle. Willis says San Francisco should hold off on drafting a wide receiver and instead look for free agency options.

Trent Williams could be an option at offensive tackle — but a costly one. Williams is scheduled to become a free agent and is among the best tackles in the league. He will likely fetch an average salary of $20 million or more. San Francisco might have to be creative with its salary cap to hold onto Williams.

"They keep that veteran in there if he's not going to eat up too much cap space," Willis said.

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