What a difference a year can make.
After all, if Patrick Willis, San Francisco's gifted young inside linebacker, was a year younger and Patriots rookie Jerod Mayoa year older, perhaps the two would be facing each other on Sunday wearing the opposite uniforms.
Willis was chosen with the 11th overall pick in 2007 after a brilliant career at Ole Miss. His eye-popping athleticism surely would have been hard for Bill Belichicknot to notice. But the Patriots had the 24th and 28th picks, not enough to scoop up the talented Willis at 11.
A year later, Belichick thought enough of Mayo to take the similarly talented linebacker with the 10th pick – a selection that was originally the property of San Francisco before a trade gave the Niners the 28th pick in 2007. Obviously had the situations been reversed, there's at least a chance the teams would have made the selections.
But it's safe to say that neither team is disappointed with their current players. Willis is coming off a monster rookie season that saw him set an unofficial NFL record for tackles (226) while taking part in every snap for his team. That production earned him Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Mayo took part in every play during the first two weeks before getting a few breathers in the team's 38-13 loss to Miami in Week 3. He leads the team in unassisted tackles through three games with 20 and his 30 total tackles trails only Rodney Harrison's 34.
Each displays uncommon athleticism for the position, an ability that allows them to be candidates for any and all defensive packages their teams might need.
"They are guys that run well and have good range. They can cover ground in the passing game and get in on a lot of tackles," Belichick said. "They can play physically inside with the big guys and also get out on the perimeter in space on the outside runs, screens, loose plays and they both make some plays on that.
"I think Willis is one of the most athletic inside linebackers that we will play against. He's a top athlete that can really run and you usually don't see that with the inside linebackers. A lot of those guys are bigger, more physical guys that are coming off the field on third down. Willis is a special athlete. I think he played every play for them last year and I can see why."
Belichick used a play that was a staple on many highlight shows as an example of Willis' skill set. During a Week 2 win in Seattle, Willis grabbed a deflection of a pass and turned upfield for an 86-yard touchdown return. Along the way he cut back and out-ran several defenders, looking more like a running back than a 240-plus-pound inside linebacker.
"I'm very impressed," centerDan Koppensaid when asked for his impressions of Willis. "He's a younger guy but he's got all the skills and tools. He's a smart player, very athletic and aggressive. He's got everything to continue what's already been a great career.
"I think it's pretty rare for such a young player, especially on the defensive side of the ball with everything they have to learn and understand and really experience in the game. For him to step in right away and do that it's a testament to him."
Koppen and guardsLogan Mankinsand Billy Yateswill be chasing Willis around on Sunday, a task that will be among their most difficult challenges of the season.
"Trying to get on him and stay on him. He works well with what he's got. He's a physical guy and athletic too so he presents a whole lot of problems," Koppen said.
The Patriots will leave for the West Coast and remain in California after the Niners game as they prepare to travel down to San Diego for a night game against the Chargers Oct. 12. The back-to-back affairs on the coast offer the team a chance to cut down on travel a bit.
The Arizona Cardinals faced a similar situation recently when they took on Washington and the Jets in consecutive weeks. After losing to the Redskins in Week 3, the Cardinals stayed in Virginia throughout the week before heading to the Meadowlands. The Patriots hope they fare better than the Cardinals, who were walloped by the Jets, 56-35, before limping back home.
"I'm not a guy that really likes to fly a whole lot anyway, especially four or five hours in the air," defensive end Richard Seymoursaid. "We just have to be aware, obviously it didn't work out too well for AZ (Arizona), but we just have to understand that we're on a business trip and we have to take care of business."
The Patriots practiced inside the Dana-Farber Field House on Monday after a weekend of heavy rains throughout the Foxborough area. New England was missing five players during the media portion of practice as Kelley Washington, Jonathan Wilhite, Lewis Sanders, Eric Alexanderand Mark LeVoirwere not present.
It appears as if Mayo may have suffered a left wrist injury as the rookie was wearing a cast while getting dressed for practice, although was on the field and it would be hard to imagine him being in the locker room during media access if the injury were serious. Washington was also seen in the locker room wearing a plastic boot on his right foot.