Patrick Willis filled out a questionnaire a few years ago that asked him whether he would rather be rich or a Hall of Famer.
As it turns out, the answer might be "C. All of the above."
The 49ers on Tuesday added a five-year, $50 million extension to the two years remaining on Willis' rookie deal. The extension includes almost $29 million in guaranteed money and makes Willis the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history.
He is now under contract through 2016.
"He embodies everything we want, on the field and off," coach Mike Singletary said.
Willis, 25, recalled Tuesday that while filling out that survey years ago, he checked the box marked "Hall of Fame." Such lofty goals are part of his appeal as far as the 49ers are concerned. Singletary said Willis' high standards and matching work ethic set the tone in the locker room.
Willis is the first 49ers player to start his career with three consecutive Pro Bowl selections since Ronnie Lott. Since Willis broke in as a rookie in 2007, no one in the NFL has more tackles than his 467. By the league's count, Carolina's Jon Beason (419 tackles) and Washington's London Fletcher (403) are the only players within 100 of Willis' total during that span.
Still, Willis is a famously brutal critic of himself during film study. He constantly quizzes Singletary about how he can improve.
"This is one of the most unique players I've been around," the coach said. "If you didn't know who he was, you'd think he was a special-teams player. He's so unassuming."
Singletary, a Hall of Fame player, said Tuesday that his protege is better than Singletary ever was. That's why the 49ers were eager to lock up Willis before he could get within a whiff of free agency.
The feeling was mutual. Willis called the 49ers his "home" and vowed that his career is just getting warmed up.
"I think what I've done the past three years is the tip of the iceberg," Willis said. "People think that they've seen the best I have to offer, but they haven't by far."
The 11th overall pick from Mississippi, Willis was the NFL defensive rookie of the year in 2007. From the start, he convinced one of his biggest skeptics — Singletary — that he was a special talent.
Singletary argued against taking Willis in the draft after being uninspired by his Mississippi game films. It was only after hearing about how Willis overcame his hardscrabble upbringing that Singletary realized the player he could become.
"The thing that I see in him is what all great linebackers have, and that is the passion to make every play," he said. "That is the one common denominator in any great linebacker."
For all his individual accomplishments, Willis has yet to reach the postseason. Asked about his playoff drought Tuesday, the linebacker held true to form: He raised the bar.
"We will bring the sixth championship back here," Willis said. "And I'm just thankful today to know that I still will be able to be here to do that."
For more on the 49ers, see Daniel Brown's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.