NFL Any Era: Willis' case for Justin Smith

Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Steven Jackson, Adrian Wilson and Larry Fitzgerald were among the current NFC West players I considered best qualified the ESPN.com/ESPN The Magazine's NFL Any Era team.

There were other less-accomplished players I felt fit the mold, including Chris Clemons, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, etc.

But when ESPN shared with me an advance copy of the list, Smith's exclusion bothered me the most. Willis made it at No. 7, and rightly so. The top four positions have not yet been revealed, but No. 94 for the 49ers is not among them.

"If I could exchange myself today and give it to somebody else, I would give it to Justin and I would be off of it," Willis said of his Any Era selection. "Because honestly, he is who makes me who I am. This guy, he really makes my world a lot easier."

Anyone watching the 49ers closely during their recent postseason run got to see how Smith plays every week. Smith had 10 tackles, two sacks and nine quarterback hits in those games. He drove both opponents' left tackles straight backward into their quarterbacks, dragging down Drew Brees and mauling Eli Manning.

"He is no prima donna d-tackle," Willis said. "This guy is the real deal. He is not 400-and-some pounds and just sitting there like a big glob. He is not 270 pounds where he is just trying to swim a gap. This man is 300 pounds on the money and he is going to go right through you."

Smith has started 171 consecutive regular-season games. The way Smith's neck and head fill his helmet creates an old-school look.

"Those are the types of guys I want to play with," Willis said. "Hard-nosed guys. You get guys that just want to be pass rushers or you get guys who don't want to move. I don’t think you are a complete guy. Justin is a very complete d-tackle to me. Man, I’ll tell you what, he has been the heart and soul of this defense."