Matt Millen’s ranking of 49ers linebackers might surprise you

By PHIL BARBER

Before leaving for New Orleans, I spoke by phone with Matt Millen, who has been doing TV work for both ESPN and NFL Network of late. It was for a story I wrote on the 49ers linebackers, asking whether they should be considered among the greatest linebacking corps in history. The story will appear in The Press Democrat’s Super Bowl special section.

Matt was very gracious with his time, and warmed to the subject. He played linebacker for 12 NFL seasons, won four Super Bowls with three teams, was GM of the Lions for seven years (I know, that one didn’t go well) and has stayed very close to the game since then. Few people are more qualified to rate NFL linebackers.

Here are excerpts of my interview with Millen, which I found fascinating:

SO WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE 49ERS LINEBACKERS?
Millen: “Two years ago I started watching ’em, but they weren’t there yet. Last year, when NaVorro (Bowman) became a full-time starter and had Ahmad Brooks on the outside, and then they added Aldon Smith to the right side – well, the first thing that became clear right away, I’d always been a Patrick Willis fan. But NaVorro Bowman passed him. NaVorro Bowman is the best linebacker in the league. I shouldn’t say it’s not even close. It’s close. But he does some things better than Patrick. And Patrick does a couple things better than he does. But overall, in their game, he disengages quicker, he has a little more violence in his hands. But as an inside backer, he’s the best there is. I said that last year, and I said it reluctantly in the middle of the season, because you really want to see it over time. And now this is the second straight year I’m seeing the same things, and I’m not the only one seeing it. There’s a lot of people out there seeing the same thing.”

HOW DO THE 49ERS BACKERS COMPARE TO GREAT UNITS OF THE PAST?
Millen: “When you look at the group – and I’m looking back. When I say ‘this time,’ I mean this time frame with these rules, the way the game’s played now. This is the best group that I’ve seen in – I can’t even … trying to think back. In this era, say the last 10 years, I can’t think of a better unit. And when I go back 20 years, think back to with Mike (Singletary) in Chicago, with Wilber (Marshall) – gee, that’s about 30 years already – and Otis (Wilson), that was a good group. That was a really good group. And I think back to the Giants. Lawrence Taylor was the greatest player. Forget linebacker, Lawrence Taylor was the best player I’ve ever seen. … He changed the way the game’s played. But when he was in New York, (Gary) Reasons was just a guy, Harry Carson’s better days were past him. He still made all-pro, but that was more a function of New York.

“Now the Saints had a group, with Rickey Jackson on one side, (Pat) Swilling on the other, and then Sam (Mills) on the inside, and Vaughan Johnson. That was a really good group. 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.”

BREAK THEM DOWN INDIVIDUALLY FOR ME
Millen: “Patrick leads the group. He holds the flag for the group. The guy who is in the No. 4 position, if you ask most people they’d say Ahmad Brooks. I just did a piece on Ahmad Brooks the other day. Ahmad Brooks had a phenomenal year. 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. This is what Cincinnati was hoping they were gonna get. So he’s there finally.

“Really, to me, the weakest of the four is Aldon Smith. He’s not close to where he’s going to be. He needs seasoning. But what he can do is rush the passer. But right now, he’s not a guy who can consistently do it all by himself. Right now he’s a function of Justin (Smith). When Justin’s on, he’s really good. He needs to get to the place where it doesn’t matter where he is, he’s gonna beat anybody. He’s talented enough to beat any right tackle in the league. He needs to be talented enough, stand-alone-wise, to beat any left tackle in the league. And there are some that give him problems. And he’s figuring some things out. He’s still trying to get his motor down where it should be all the time. His pass drops aren’t great yet, but he’ll get better. Most linebackers don’t really figure it out until probably year 4 or 5 in terms of drops.

“That’s what sets NaVorro apart. Probably the two best that I’ve watched all season played on the same team together in college (at Penn State). He and Sean Lee (of the Dallas Cowboys) are phenomenal. They’ve got great sense in their pass drops. They have good vision, they anticipate well, peripherally they see things. They do a nice job naturally of locating receivers in their area and playing to them. They anticipate crossing routes well, they understand if someone’s giving ’em the cheese underneath, to not bite; they stay deep. They are exceptional, both of ’em.”

WHAT WAS THE BEST GROUP OF LINEBACKERS YOU WERE A PART OF?
Millen: “The best group we had (with the Raiders), Ted (Hendricks) is in the Hall of Fame, Rod Martin was defensive player of the year, I was at a Pro Bowl level, and Bob Nelson was a big, solid tough guy playing the weak, the Will backer. Bob was 250 pounds. That was probably our best group. But it was a different game than is played now. . . . The schemes aren’t the same. . . . Bob Nelson couldn’t play the Will now. Your linebackers have to run a little bit better than they did previously. They’re not standing in a gap, manning things up.”

We talked scheme, too, with Millen saying that the teams that had the most success against the 49ers defense — in his eyes, the Giants and Seahawks — came at the Niners with aggressive combination blocks and caught those linebackers being a bit passive. He thinks the Ravens will pose a challenge in that regard.

Finally, one more interesting tidbit. Millen and NFL Network researcher Matt Hamilton, seeking to find a substitute for the tackles statistic (which Millen calls worthless), looked at EVERY SINGLE PLAY by an inside linebacker in the NFL this year, and counted what they called “impact tackles”: tackles on gains of 3 yards or less, tackles for loss, sacks or fumbles, or tackles on third or fourth down if they stopped the conversion.

The NFL leader might surprise you: Seattle’s Bobby Wagner. Bowman was second, just two tackles behind Wagner. Millen said Willis was fourth or fifth.

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