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Warner inspired by Willis, who ‘deserves' Pro Football Hall nod

Warner inspired by Willis, who ‘deserves' Pro Football Hall nod originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

  • Programming note: Watch Matt Maiocco's "49ers Talk" interview with linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw at 9:30 p.m. PT tonight on NBC Sports Bay Area.

SANTA CLARA — This could be a big week for a legendary 49ers linebacker.

The team’s current star linebackers will be paying close attention to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024 announcement on Thursday night.

Patrick Willis, a five-time first-team All-Pro selection in his eight-year NFL career, is one of 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which can elect no more than five of the modern-era candidates.

“He fully deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and he’s going to get in very soon,” 49ers three-time All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner told NBC Sports Bay Area on the latest "49ers Talk." “I’m really excited for him.”

Before Warner and Dre Greenlaw began patrolling the middle of the field for the 49ers, there were Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

Willis and Bowman remain the models for how Warner and Greenlaw go about their jobs.

“The way they played the game back in the day and the example and standard they set, there was no duo better,” Greenlaw said.

Said Warner, “Two All-Pro linebackers at the same time on the same field, that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Willis changed the game when he entered the NFL as a first-round pick of the 49ers in 2007. Up to that point, most inside linebackers were built to shed blocks and fill gaps in the run game. But Willis was a lot more than just a thumper.

He brought sideline-to-sideline range and was used in a variety of different ways, including pass coverage — man-to-man and zone — against backs and tight ends.

Still, it’s difficult to find players such as Willis. The 49ers have found an inordinate amount of success at linebacker for over a decade with Bowman, Warner and Greenlaw coming on the scene after Willis.

The current generation of 49ers linebackers have high praise for Willis, on and off the field. Willis, 39, has gotten to know Warner and Greenlaw from spending a little more time around the team in recent years.

“We started connecting and talking back and forth,” Warner said. “He’s shown nothing but love to me. And, obviously, that’s one of my role models for excellence at the linebacker position — or forget the position, you talk about playing football the right way.”

Greenlaw said he is also in regular contact with Willis. They bonded during training camp when they had time to share experiences from their past. Willis and Greenlaw both had difficult childhoods and spent considerable time in foster care.

“I was able to talk to him a little more on a personal level rather than just football,” Greenlaw said. “I was pleased with the kind of guy he is. I know he had a hard upbringing, too.

“There are different things that I know I battle with. It’s nice to talk to somebody that’s been through that same thing or been through it and now they’re on the other side of it. He’s been one of those guys any time, anything you need to talk to about him, he’s more than willing and open to talk about.”

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