Best linebackers in history?

A convincing case can be made that San Francisco’s current group is the best of all time

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

NEW ORLEANS — After the 49ers had dispatched the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game, earning the privilege of playing in Super Bowl XLVII, Patrick Willis was asked for his perspective on the game-preserving pass deflections by fellow linebackers Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman.

Willis looked to his left and called out amid the hubbub: “Hey, Ahmad. Aldon. Let me ask you something. You All-Pro?”

Brooks, closest to Willis, looked bewildered. “Am I All-Pro?” he parroted. “Yeah.”

“All right,” Willis said, turning back to the reporter. “That’s what he was supposed to do. Aldon Smith, that’s what he’s supposed to do. Na-Vorro Bowman, that’s what he’s supposed to do. Myself? I had nothing spectacular, but that’s what I’m supposed to do. You know what? Our linebacker coach, he never let us see he’s excited, because he always tells us, ‘You know what? You’re just doing your job.’ ” In other words, greatness is expected of the 49ers’ linebacking unit. And it’s greatness they frequently deliver.

This year, three of the four — Willis, Bowman and Smith — were voted onto the NFC Pro Bowl roster. And all four of them received some sort of All-Pro designation, a rarity in NFL history. The conclusion is clear: The 49ers have the best group of linebackers in the league.

“Everybody has something that they’re really good at,” Smith said of the foursome, “and most of us that are good at what we do are at the top of the list of people that do it. So I think that would be put us at being the best linebacking corps.”

Considering the All-Pro designations, maybe it’s time to go a step further. Perhaps we should be asking if these guys form the best linebacking unit in NFL history.

First, let’s consider the competition. Opinions no doubt vary widely on the subject, but the debate would have to include these classic sets of linebackers (stated year may represent a longer period).

1965 Packers: Ray Nitschke, Dave Robinson, Lee Roy Caffey

1968 Chiefs: Willie Lanier, Bobby Bell, Jim Lynch

1974 Steelers: Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell

1985 Bears: Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall

1986 Giants: Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Carl Banks, Gary Reasons

1990 Bills: Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, Darryl Talley, Ray Bentley

1992 Saints: Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Pat Swilling

1995 Steelers: Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown

2006 Ravens: Ray Lewis, Adalius Thomas, Terrell Suggs, Bart Scott

Can the current 49ers compare with some of those hallowed fraternities?

Matt Millen thinks so. Millen played linebacker for 12 NFL seasons and three teams, including four Super Bowl winners. He was general manager of the Detroit Lions for seven years, and now does analysis for both ESPN and NFL Network. Few are more qualified on this subject.

In Millen’s eyes, the standard bearers have been those New Orleans linebackers, the famed “Dome Patrol.” All four made the Pro Bowl in 1992, an unprecedented feat.

“That was a really good group,” Millen said. “As a crew, that was as good as it got. And this group is better. For me, this might be the best group of linebackers that I’ve seen in probably 35 to 40 years. I can’t think of a better group.”

Start with the inside linebackers. Willis is the acknowledged superstar of the quartet, a tackle machine who can also rush the quarterback and cover backs and tight ends. Willis has made the Pro Bowl in each of his six NFL seasons. And yet he might not be the top rung right now.

“I’d always been a Patrick Willis fan. But NaVorro Bowman passed him,” Millen said. “NaVorro Bowman is the best linebacker in the league. I shouldn’t say it’s not even close. It’s close. But overall, in their game, (Bowman) disengages quicker, he has a little more violence in his hands. As an inside backer, he’s the best there is.”

On the outside, Smith has emerged as the sack specialist. He racked up 19½ in 2012, setting a 49ers record and chasing the all-time NFL mark until a late-season slump. Millen believes Smith needs to get better at beating left tackles one-on-one, but there is no denying his impact. And then there is Brooks, who signed with the 49ers in 2008 after being waived by the Bengals. He’s the least heralded of the four linebackers, but maybe that’s a mistake.

“Ahmad Brooks had a phenomenal year,” Millen said. “He played that position as good or better than anybody in the league. He’s not a pass rusher, per se, but he gets pressure. He defends his edge as well as anybody. He can play with power, he can put his hand in the dirt. He can drop.”

Exceptional as individual components, the 49ers linebackers are off the charts as a collective. Each complements the others’ skills on the field, and they bring out the best in one another with encouragement and playful boasting in the film room.

“We all compete, and everybody wants to say they did the best,” Smith said. “So if everybody’s trying to do that, then you’re gonna see some amazing plays happen.”