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Willis finds unforeseen lockout benefits

Veterans such as Patrick Willis are experiencing some positive effects of a rare summer off. Tony Medina/Icon SMI

BRUCETON, Tenn. -- Patrick Willis can name a few unanticipated benefits of the NFL's current lockout. The San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker can feel one when he clenches his right hand and feels no pain in his surgically repaired hand. He can sense it in his legs when he's running sprints in his driveway back in the Bay Area, because his limbs seem far fresher at this point in the offseason than in years past. Willis even can see the difference in his free time. He's barely known what that is for as long as he's played organized football.

Willis' story is interesting today -- particularly as owners and players move closer on collective bargaining agreement negotiations that could end the lockout -- because we're about to see how much a lost offseason really meant to veterans like him. Some players thought it was best to spend a good amount of their time training with fellow teammates during on-field workouts. Others, like Willis, opted to focus on the individual regimens they'd used for years. None, however, probably felt bad about not having to show up for "voluntary" offseason programs and mandatory minicamps.

Most veterans covet the time they get to spend away from their teams, believing that OTA days are more tedium than anything else. For somebody like Willis, having the chance to rest a 6-foot-1, 240-pound body that already has made 595 tackles in four NFL seasons has been especially helpful.

"It does feel a little weird when you have so much time to yourself at this time of year," Willis said during a recent visit to his hometown of Bruceton. "But I won't lie, either -- it has been nice in some ways. I've never really had a summer off since I started playing football, and I can feel the difference in my body. I can see that I really needed this."

What's important to note here is that Willis hasn't treated his offseason like an unexpected vacation. He's still displaying the same work ethic that led him out of rural western Tennessee years ago. Whether he's training two or three times a day or pumping iron late at night, he's always focused on staying at the level that has made him a four-time Pro Bowler. Even when his foster parents, Chris and Julie Finley, visited the Bay Area a few weeks ago, he wouldn't let family time detract from his workouts.

See, players like Willis realize fairly quickly that they can do their jobs without being shackled to their teams all spring. Sure, it's been encouraging to see player-led workouts in many NFL cities across the country. But the most candid veterans will tell you those sessions had more to do with sustaining camaraderie than actually learning schemes. In some cases, players have quietly whispered to themselves that they were only hanging around until the media arrived. After conducting interviews, they knew the show was over.

Willis didn't spend any time at the workouts led by 49ers quarterback Alex Smith earlier this offseason because there wasn't much point. While team coaches gave Smith a playbook to help offensive teammates work on the passing game, Willis received nothing. He did make a few stops by the team facility before the lockout to meet new coach Jim Harbaugh and his defensive assistants. Aside from that, he'll be in the same situation as his other defensive teammates when training camp eventually begins. He'll be trying to get up to speed on the new system.

That challenge doesn't worry Willis too much. "It's not ideal, but we'll find a way to deal with it," he said. He also doesn't think that he's any less prepared because of the time he's spent away from the team. "I've always been kind of paranoid about my legs [at this time of year] anyway," Willis said. " That's why I've never liked doing a lot of agility stuff. I always get worried that I might twist something or step on somebody's foot and tear something. I'd rather get up to speed when I'm camp. It's never taken me long to do that."

One visit to Willis' hometown gives you a clear idea of why he's never worried about being prepared for work. He grew up in a dilapidated trailer on the outskirts of a two-stoplight town. He started working summer jobs when he was 10 years old in order to help his family when he wasn't playing sports. This is a 26-year-old man who is so driven that he once played part of a season at his alma mater, Ole Miss, with a broken hand.

So when it comes to fretting about what might have been lost this offseason because of labor issues, Willis simply shrugs his shoulders dismissively in the way most veterans probably would. He's still focused on helping the 49ers go from being mediocre to postseason-worthy. He's heard all the expectations before and seen all the talent the team has compiled. He knows it's time for him to stop spending his offseasons wondering what it's going to take for this team to capture an NFC West title.

But Willis also understands something else -- that there is a point during a veteran's NFL career when time on the field doesn't mean nearly as much as time away from it. There will certainly be some challenges that his teammates face in learning new schemes and acclimating themselves to new coaches. What they won't have to do is wonder if their defensive leader will be ready to go. Given how this offseason has progressed for Willis so far, he's likely to be better than ever whenever the NFL decides to resume business.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.