When both Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland started Thursday's preseason opener at inside linebacker, it was an illustration of where things stand in the battle to replace NaVorro Bowman early in the season.
“Very even,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio today of the competition at the position.
Patrick Willis will start at one of the inside linebacker spots against the Cowboys in Week 1. However, he was given the night off in Baltimore on Thursday, which allowed Borland to play with the first-string defense.
Both Borland and Willis have been playing the “Mike” inside linebacker spot. Should Borland win the competition, it's likely he'll play “Mike” while Willis will move to the “Jack” spot, which he has played each of the last three seasons. The positions are very similar, although the “Mike” linebacker tends to be in a position to make more tackles while the “Jack” usually has more coverage duties.
To this point, Borland has mostly practiced at the “Mike” spot. During Sunday's practice in Owings Mills, Md., he lined up there and stood out during a live tackling drill at the goal line. Borland made two stops, one behind the line of scrimmage against the Ravens' second-team offense.
Despite Fangio's comments, it's been Wilhoite, not Borland, who has lined up next to Willis with the first-string defense during practices this summer. Until that changes, Wilhoite should be considered the starter. Bowman could return following the team's Week 8 bye.
Fangio said cornerback Tramaine Brock “sprained his ankle pretty good” in practice on July 27 and likely would miss Sunday's preseason game against the Broncos. Fangio said the hope is that Brock returns to practice next week.
Two other cornerbacks, Chris Cook and Chris Culliver, are dealing with minor knee injuries. Cook hurt his during Sunday's practice and sat out Monday's session. The 49ers practice at 2:30 p.m. today.
Fangio said that replacing Aldon Smith this year would be easier than last year when Smith missed five games while in an substance-abuse rehabilitation center because, unlike last season, Smith's backups have been getting plenty of practice repetitions.
Smith is facing a multi-game suspension to start the season. Replacing him likely will fall to Dan Skua and Corey Lemonier, who split snaps during Smith's absence last year. Another candidate is rookie Aaron Lynch, who only began practicing in full late last week after suffering a hamstring strain in the spring.
Still, Lynch has been impressive in his short stint. He said he's up to 276 pounds after dropping down to 246 pounds at South Florida where he was a bit of a disappointment. Lynch had transferred from Notre Dame where he led the team in sacks. He said he was about 270 pounds that season.