No. 7: 49ers LB Patrick Willis
WHAT IS #NFLAnyEra?
Or, to put a finer point on it -- when Mike Ditka looks at today's player, whom does he want lining up next to him ... or across from him?
Which of today's players did our group of Hall of Famers deem really old school?
The playing days for our 20-member Hall of Fame panel spanned the '60s (Jim Brown) to the turn of the century (John Randle).
We'll present four players a day, culminating with our top four on Friday, Jan. 27.
#NFLANYERA TOP 20
WHAT THE HALL OF FAMERS SAY ABOUT 49ERS LB PATRICK WILLIS
JOHN RANDLE: You see guys out there playing with passion on each play and you appreciate that. When you line up with a guy, you want your teammate to play as hard as you are every play, every game, every season. Patrick Willis does that.
JAMES LOFTON: The end result of defense has not changed, when you first played this game to now. When you get to the point of attack, you want to be the guy attacking. That's what Patrick Willis is. He might be faster than Ray Nitschke, he might be faster than Dick Butkus. When he gets to the ball, there's going to be trouble. That's Patrick Willis.
MIKE DITKA: Patrick Willis knocks the crap out of guys. He plays well and smart. When he gets to the ball carrier, he makes something happen. He'll put you on the ground. And guys know it.
JERRY RICE: Willis has the speed, he has the toughness, he's a smart football player, he likes to hit and he's an intimidator.
WILLIS ON HIS TOUGHEST NFL MOMENT
In 2010, Willis broke his hand and continued to play with a club cast. But the injury became so bad, he had to miss the final game of the 2010 season. This development hurt Willis more than his hand did.
Honestly, it would have been one time last year at the end of the season, after I had surgery. I played two games with a broken fourth metacarpal, whatever they call them bones, and it shifted so bad that the doc was like, "I can't let you play. If you play, you have a chance of breaking it even more and we would have to do this, have to do that, blah, blah, and you'd be out way longer." That was tough for me because for the first time in my NFL career, the game was being taken from me.
I have had injuries and broken bones and times when you don't know how you could play, but I still went out there and played. For him to tell me that "we can't let you go," I just felt like they took something from me that I love so much. That is my passion, that is my heart. That was tough.
ESPN.COM'S JOHN CLAYTON ON WILLIS
Willis plays the same style of football as Ray Lewis, but he isn't as vocal. Athletically, he could have played outside linebacker in any of the old 4-3 defenses or thrived at being what he is now -- a great 3-4 inside linebacker. Watching Willis work with NaVorro Bowman as inside 'backers in the 3-4 reminds me of some of the great New York Giants defenses under Bill Parcells. Willis could have played any linebacker spot in the Steelers' great Steel Curtain defenses. Basically, Willis is a tackling machine. Those traits work in any era of football.
CLAYTON ON HALL OF FAME CHANCES
He's climbing the ladder like Ray Lewis but needs to string together more great seasons to have a chance.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN
ON TWITTER #NFLNYERA
Patrick Willis at number 7? I've very interested to see the 6 better players than him. #NFLAnyEra— Cam Kinley (@camkinley13) January 26
#NFLANYERA TOP 20
Additional reporting by ESPN The Magazine's Morty Ain, Louise Cornetta, Amy Parlapiano and Alyssa Roenigk.