Now that Patrick Willis has officially retired from the NFL, Lawrence Timmons is the highest selected linebacker from the 2007 NFL draft that still plays in the NFL.
Patrick Willis was arguably the NFL's best defender over a span of multiple seasons and was the key leader in the resurgence of the San Francisco 49ers that saw the franchise go fomr a playoff drought of eight seasons, to then three straight appearances in the NFC Conference Championship game and a Super Bowl appearance. His mix of speed, power, ball skills, fundamentals and leadership qualities made for him to be arguably the most revered linebacker in the NFL, next to Ray Lewis.
Willis was the first linebacker selected in the 2007 NFL draft at 11th overall, just four picks before Lawrence Timmons would hear his name announced as the 15th overall pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While Timmons would struggle for starting time in Pittsburgh behind a tandem of experienced and gritty middle linebackers that had already won a Super Bowl with the Steelers in James Farrior and Larry Foote, Willis immediately became a starter for the 49ers and a staple in their team. Willis would be named to the Pro Bowl for the first seven years of his career, only missing 2014 with what would be his career ending injury.
Timmons only made his first Pro Bowl in 2014, but has become a consistent leading player for the Steelers defense. Since becoming a starter in his third season, he's started in all but four games and hasn't missed a game for four straight seasons. Though his play has not garnered the attention and deserved praise that Willis commanded during his career, Timmons has become one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL.
It would be an easy argument to make for anyone to say Willis was a better linebacker than Timmons in their first seven seasons in the league. Willis recorded more than 100 tackles in each of his first four seasons in the league and currently has more than 200 total tackles than Timmons. Though Timmons does lead Willis in both sacks and interceptions, it would be a difficult task to find any reasonable football fan who would say they would take Timmons over Willis while both were still in the NFL.
However with Willis' retirement, Timmons becomes the highest drafted linebacker of the 2007 class that is still in the NFL. The longevity of a player is very relative to determining their value to the team which drafted them, and that point comes into play in hindsight of the Steelers grabbing Timmons and the 49ers grabbing Willis.
While Willis' career is done (for the time being), Timmons has had success of his own, including being a Super Bowl champion and being part of another team that almost won a Super Bowl. As the old guard of Steelers' linebackers faded away with the retirement of Farrior, the aging of Foote and the injury-plagued decline of LaMarr Woodley, Timmons finds himself with James Harrison as the only remaining members of the linebacking corps that was part of the great defenses of the late 2000's in Pittsburgh.
As Harrison has aged out of his prime, Timmons has come into his own and been the one player that the Steelers could rely on for consistency on defense over the past several seasons. He has developed enough to know his role in the team, is rarely out of position and still has more than enough athleticism to be a coverage linebacker and get after whoever has the ball. Timmons benefited from coming in as a young talented defender into a nucleus of all-stars and great role players whom he could learn under and develop his abilities.
Now the former Florida State linebacker finds himself as the veteran leader of a younger defensive nucleus, being the experienced teacher of several newcomers as the Steelers' defense tries to regain a top ranking in the NFL. Behind him are a group of youngsters that could develop into the best inside linebacker group of the league, including first round pick Ryan Shazier, the resurrected Sean Spence and the late round selection of Vince Williams; all of whom have showed promise in their limited action.
If Timmons can be the stalwart player that carries the torch from the legendary defenses of the late 2000's to a new generation of great defense that adds to the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl trophy case, it would make for a different story when all is said and done about his career than that of Patrick Willis.
This is not to say that the 49ers made a mistake in drafting Willis, he was an amazing player on the field and no one could predict his retirement to come at this point of his career. However, in hindsight, Timmons has the opportunity to add to his already existing Super Bowl victory count and continue his legacy, while Willis' only chance fell short and, should he remain retired, will have to leave his career at what it still is right now, seemingly incomplete.
Should Timmons be a catalyst for a great defense in his near-future and earn another ring, it would make for an easier argument to argue which player was more valuable to their respective teams.