Both drafted in the same year by the same team, Willis was the 11th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. Goldson was the 27th pick of the fourth round, No. 126 overall.
Despite their dissimilar draft standing, the two came to the Bay Area determined to make a difference for the San Francisco 49ers. Willis started immediately and has become a household name. He now stands as the first 49ers player to make five Pro Bowls to start a career.
Goldson, on the other hand, began as a backup and special teams contributor, who worked his way to the starting free safety position where he’s started in all 45 games he’s appeared in over the past three seasons. Goldson, like Willis, has continued to ascend in five seasons spent in San Francisco.
Case in point: Goldson was named to his first Pro Bowl team this week as a reserve.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound safety, who re-signed with the 49ers on a one-year contract before the start of the season, was excited about the honor, but perhaps not as thrilled as one of his biggest supporters in Willis.
“Dashon is a guy that I’ve always looked up to since we’ve been here,” Willis admitted on Wednesday. “We came in together and it’s great to see him get the recognition he deserves. He’s been playing good football since he’s been in that starting role and we’re really glad to have gotten him back this year. He’s played a big role in the defense’s success thus far.”
Willis, the defensive captain, can certainly attest to Goldson’s contributions to the league’s most opportunistic defense which has forced 36 takeaways, tops in the league.
Goldson is tied for the team lead with a career-high six interceptions to go along with 77 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and eight pass breakups. Furthermore, Goldson’s six interceptions, which all came in an 8-game stretch, rank first among NFC safeties and is second among safeties in the NFL.
Being selected to the Pro Bowl was a nice achievement for Goldson, but not one he set out to accomplish from the start of his career.
“It’d be a lie if I said it didn’t feel good,” Goldson said. “But when I came out, I didn’t set myself any goals. It was just about winning. From my years in college, I didn’t have a winning career. I wanted to come to a program and win.”
The 49ers safety credits his success to teammates and coaches who’ve helped him record the most interceptions of his career. Goldson had five career interceptions in four years entering 2011.
“It comes from being in the right position,” Goldson said. “Our D-linemen, the front seven, do a great job of putting pressure on the ball. Coach (Vic Fangio) is making the right calls to put me in position to get those balls. Coming down with them, I’ve always been one of those guys who flies around and can get to the ball. I definitely can catch, so I have to make it count once I get to them.”
Goldson came to the 49ers with a hungry teammate like Willis and over the years, they’ve become difference-makers for the league’s stingiest defense, a unit that allows a league-best 13.5 points per game.
Now, the 49ers defense has Pro Bowl representatives across the board with
“That shows what kind of players we have,” Goldson stressed. “We have a great football team and we had a lot more players who probably should’ve been selected.”
A tiny smile started to show on Goldson’s face.
“They probably felt like we can’t bring the whole football team so they brought a select few.”
Voters would have a hard time denying the accomplishments of Goldson’s teammates, but hopefully Goldson and company won’t even have a chance to play in the Pro Bowl.
“I hope all the guys that did make it aren’t making any plans to be there,” head coach Jim Harbaugh said.
The Pro Bowl comes a week before the Super Bowl and the 49ers clearly have a chance at winning Vince Lombardi Trophy No. 6.
With the 49ers one win away from securing the NFC’s No. 2 seed, which comes with a first-round bye, the focus is Sunday’s Week 17 opponent, the St. Louis Rams.
“Everything for us is Rams, Rams, Rams,” Harbaugh said.
The 49ers posted their only shutout of the year against St. Louis in a 26-0 Week 13 victory that secured San Francisco its first NFC West title since 2002.
Goldson and Harbaugh expect the Rams to make it difficult on the 49ers when the teams play again on New Year’s Day.
“I think this is the most important game,” Goldson said. “To go out and clinch (the No. 2 seed) and get this bye week, it would be big. We need to go out there and compete at a really high level, still. It’s very important. We can’t go in there with the mindset that we’ve arrived. We have to go in there and play hard this week.”
“Good players, good coaches,” Harbaugh said. “I’d imagine they’re playing very loose, nothing to lose. That’s a dangerous team because you never know what could happen. Any deceit or trickery could unfold.”
The Rams have yet to determine if Sam Bradford will start at quarterback. Bradford has missed five starts due to injury, including the team’s first meeting in San Francisco. If Bradford’s ankle remains a problem, backup Kellen Clemens could start for a third straight week.
No matter whom the 49ers face under center, Goldson will be looking to deliver more game-changing plays, whether it is in the form of interceptions or bone-crushing open-field hits.
And Willis expects nothing more from his safety or from the rest of the 49ers defense.
“My hat goes off to this team and what we’ve done so far,” Willis said. “But I know it’s not the end of what we’re trying to do. Our main goal is to get to the Super Bowl and to win it and that’s all of our mindsets. We’re going to continue to play like it. First, we have this big game coming up before we can start thinking about the Super Bowl. We have a big game coming up against the Rams in order to set ourselves up in a good position in the playoffs.”