CHARLOTTE -- About the middle of last year, the Carolina Panthers knew they needed a long-term fix at middle linebacker, and started dreaming of Patrick Willis.
The San Francisco 49ers were in a similar spot, but feared they weren't drafting high enough to get him, at which point they started longing for Jon Beason.
The two rookie middle linebackers -- among the top contenders for defensive rookie of the year -- will square off today at Bank of America Stadium in a rare meeting of guys who could become signature players at the position for the next generation.
"The bottom line is, they're both damn good linebackers," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said simply.
That's what made the evaluation of them interesting, because despite differing backgrounds and expectations, when scouts looked at college tape, they saw a lot of similarities.
Willis was slightly bigger, at 6-foot-1, 237 pounds to Beason's 6-feet, 232. Willis was the consensus choice as the top player at his position, a combination of speed and strength and smarts that seemed destined to end up where he did. Beason was a late riser on the draft boards, a question to some because he left Miami after his junior year, and had bounced around several positions in his short time there.
At first, it looked like there was a significant gulf between them. The longer the process went, the narrower it got.
"We had them very close on our draft board -- very close," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said of the two, with a heavy emphasis on the second very. "Willis was bigger and faster, but when you watched them on film, you saw that they were both explosive players, made a lot of plays. Then when you talked to them, you realized they were both very smart guys, very mature guys.
"There are a lot of similarities between them."
McCloughan made an almost identical statement, saying perhaps as impressive as their game film was the personal interviews they did with both of them at the combine.
"There was a mental maturity about both of them," he said. "You never got the feeling the NFL was going to be too big for them."
From the 49ers' perspective, that's what sold them on Willis. They got to know him while coaching him at the Senior Bowl, with legendary middle linebacker Mike Singletary (their assistant head coach), offering high praise after the hands-on week.
Still, they were careful not to raise the bar too high. They already had two solid inside linebackers for their 3-4 system in Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich, so a starting job wasn't a given.
"But then Patrick comes into the third preseason game and has 17 tackles in two and a half quarters," McCloughan recalled with a laugh. "From there, we pretty much knew."
Though measuring tackles is an inexact science at best, the league has Willis leading the NFL in stops with 110. Beason's 10th on that chart with 91. But teams count things differently from precinct to precinct, which is why the 49ers have Willis with 153 stops and the Panthers have credited Beason with 99 after coaches review the game film.
Mike Nolan, the 49ers head coach, said as much as he's impressed with the statistics, he's also realizing that Willis' reputation for maturity was well-deserved.
"One of the things that you can't really be sure of when you draft a player is exactly the person he is," Nolan said. "If I have been impressed with anything it's who Patrick is as a person. The thing that stands out to me about Patrick is that he is very serious about football, and with all of the attention he has gotten, he has maintained focus on just playing ball and not being a hot dog.
"He is very focused and his moral compass is pretty good, I think. I think he has a great career ahead of him for lots of reasons, not just because he is a good player, but off the field as well."
They loved the combination of qualities he presented so much, they were worried about whether they'd have a chance at him, picking 11th.
That's why they started doing their homework on Beason. To say they liked what they saw was an understatement.
"We liked Beason a lot," McCloughan said. "In fact, as we're preparing for the draft, we knew there was a real possibility Patrick wouldn't be there for us. If that had happened, we were looking to maybe move back a few spots, like to 15 or 16, and Beason was going to be in play.
McCloughan said the Panthers were "really lucky," to have snagged their middle linebacker when they did, too.
"For them to get him at 25, that was great," he said. "I figured he'd be gone by 20, at the latest."
There was significant breath-holding when the Panthers moved down from the 14th spot in the draft. They were looking at a clump of players, including safeties Michael Griffin and Brandon Meriweather, but they weren't sure either of them or Beason would be there 11 spots farther down the line than they started.
That's why there was significant hand-wringing before they made their trade with the New York Jets, because they were close to using the 14th pick on Beason anyway.
"That was certainly an option," Hurney said. "We decided to take the extra pick (a second rounder, which they used on center Ryan Kalil), but taking Jon there was a real possibility."
Perhaps the only thing keeping it from being a slam dunk was Beason's general lack of experience, having played just one year as an inside linebacker at Miami. And given his size, there was an initial suspicion that playing the middle might overwhelm him.
What they've found out since then is that he has an uncanny knack for getting off blocks, allowing him to flow to the ball and make big plays, even though he's giving up pounds and inches to almost every fullback and tight end he sees.
"Obviously you have to talk about that, but he was so quick and able to slip blocks," Mike Trgovac said of the size questions. "You saw evidence of him in the middle against big-time opponents. That never showed up on tape where you'd say, 'OK, that's a factor,' but it was also something you had to discuss."
And the longer they talked, the more convinced they became of their choice, just as the 49ers are in theirs.
"Both of them know the game," said 49ers running back Frank Gore, who played with Beason at Miami. "I think Patrick is faster but at the point of attack, Beason is probably more physical. I think both of them are good football players. They fly around and they are going to have great careers."