It was no surprise this week when 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil said Gerald Hodges and Michael Wilhoite were competing for one of the starting spots at inside linebacker.
After all, Wilhoite started 12 games at the position a year ago; Hodges started the other four after Wilhoite went down with an injury.
O'Neil, however, added a third name to the mix, Ray-Ray Armstrong, who to this point in his career is best known for beating his chest and barking at a police dog while a member of the Raiders last year. Armstrong was investigated for the pre-game incident in Pittsburgh in November, but charges never were filed in the matter.
Armstrong was released by the Raiders later that month, signed to the 49ers practice squad and added to the active roster in December.
Armstrong, who grew up outside of Orlando, was a strong safety at the University of Miami and modeled his game after similarly sized Sean Taylor, the stand-out Miami safety who was murdered in his home in 2007.
These days, 215-pound safeties often are converted to inside linebackers, which is what the Rams did with Armstrong when they added him as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He's played both that and outside linebacker with the Rams and Raiders but mostly was used on special teams.
O'Neil, however, said Armstrong's skills mesh nicely with what the 49ers want to do on defense this season.
"I think the first couple years in the league, he’s kind of been more of a special teams player and sometimes you find guys just because it’s the right system fit," he said. "And he’s a guy that has flourished so far. I’ll be excited when we get back to training camp to see him in the pads.”
Ray-Ray Armstrong, 25
The 49ers list him at 220 pounds, but that was his weight coming out of college. Since then he's bulked up to the 240-pound range at which the 49ers like their inside linebackers. In fact, at 6-3, he's a few inches taller than starter NaVorro Bowman and ex starter Patrick Willis. The 49ers obviously like Armstrong's coverage skills -- including his length -- and his ability to play in space, which are vital in an increasingly pass-centric league. Those are also attributes that come to the forefront in spring practices when there is no hitting and a lot of passing. As O'Neil noted, Armstrong's true test will come when the pads go on in training camp. That he has played outside linebacker also is a plus on a defense in which the inside linebackers could be rushing the passer from the edge more than they have in the past.
Gerald Hodges, 25
Bowman led the NFL in total tackles in 2015, but Hodges actually had more (39 to Bowman's 35) over the last four games of the season. Like Armstrong, Hodges is a one-time safety who converted to linebacker midway through his freshman season at Penn State. He was a fourth-round pick in 2013 to the Vikings, who traded him on Oct. 6 to the 49ers in exchange for center Nick Easton. Hodges doesn't have Armstrong's length (6-1, 32-inch arms) but he was aggressive in the run game last year with two of his tackles coming behind the line of scrimmage. In the two OTA practices that have been open to reporters thus far, Hodges and Bowman have been the 49ers' first-string linebacker tandem.
Michael Wilhoite, 29
Wilhoite is yet another former safety who has bulked up and converted to inside linebacker. He's started 30 games over the past three seasons, including all 16 in 2014 when Bowman was out with his knee injury. He finished that season with 87 tackles -- tied for 59th in the NFL -- six pass defenses, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Wilhoite is smart, motivated and reliable. But perhaps his value in the eyes of the 49ers is reflected in the fact that the two sides have not been able to strike a contract extension despite Wilhoite's significant role in recent years. Instead he played on an exclusive rights contract last year and a minimum-amount restricted free-agent contract this year.