SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis has developed into an NFL star under Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, and the 49ers coach expects his top defender to become better than he ever was.
Willis is a big deal to San Francisco — and he earned himself a big new deal because of it.
The standout inside linebacker signed a $50 million, five-year contract extension with the Niners on Tuesday that takes him through the 2016 season and includes $29 million in guaranteed money. He is set to make $10 million per season.
"Wow. It's been a long journey but it's not over yet. I feel like it's just beginning," Willis said during a news conference at team headquarters. "It means a lot. It shows they really wanted me here — and it shows what they want and what I want are the same things: to win."
This is another big offseason splash by new San Francisco personnel chief Trent Baalke, who took charge after general manager Scot McCloughan's abrupt departure in March. The team's lead negotiator, Paraag Marathe, worked with Willis' agent, Ben Dogra, over the recent months to get this done. Willis had two years left on his contract, too.
Locking up Willis for the long haul makes sure the 49ers keep their dominant defensive leader after they bolstered their offense in the draft with two linemen picked 11th and 17th overall — Rutgers' Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati out of Idaho.
"The most important message management sent today is for those guys that go out and perform, we're going to take care of our guys, and Pat is a tremendous example of that," Singletary said. "It's a great day for the 49er organization. Our management could see the value, our ownership could see the value, in a young man like Patrick Willis, who embodies everything, on the field, off the field."
The 25-year-old Willis, the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Mississippi, has led the Niners in tackles in each of his first three seasons and has made 48 straight starts. He's received plenty of comparisons to Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis along the way, though Singletary considers them different players.
"You can never just be great. Every day is a work in progress," said Willis, who prides himself in being able to stop the run, blitz or match up with receivers. "When I'm done playing, I want to leave a legacy that says, 'You know, this guy gave everything he had and he's one of the best players to ever play at that position.'"
In March, Willis underwent surgery on his right knee to remove an inflamed fluid sac that kept him out of this year's Pro Bowl. He said he's close to being ready to return to the field.
Before the 49ers drafted Willis, Singletary wasn't initially sold on his NFL potential. Once Singletary learned a little more about him — like the fact he basically raised three younger siblings and dealt with the drowning death of his 17-year-old brother, Detris, and that he played not only hurt but also with a heavy heart — the coach changed his stance in a hurry.
"I told Scot (McCloughan) before the draft, 'We've got to get this guy,'" Singletary said.
Singletary said Willis possesses "that passion to make every play." It's Singletary who has kept pushing Willis to improve through even more hard work — and Willis appreciates that constant presence from his coach.
"What I've done the last three years is only the tip of the iceberg," Willis said. "People think they've seen the best I have to offer, but they haven't by far. There's so much improvement in my game that I have to get to. And I'm willing to work every day to get to that point. But the best is yet to be seen by myself or this team in general."
The 49ers went 8-8 last season after a promising 3-1 start. Several last-minute losses on the road and inconsistent play on both sides of the ball and in special teams kept them from getting back to the postseason for the first time since 2003 — though the team did end a franchise-worst stretch of six straight losing seasons.
Willis is ready to end the playoff drought, and he's talking big in early May.
"This is a championship team right now. It's bigger than just a playoff team," he said. "I mean, I think we are a championship-caliber team. ... We will bring the sixth championship here, and I'll be here."