It’s only appropriate that on a throwback-style team like the 49ers, the most interesting offseason position battle is at inside linebacker.
Yes, NaVorro Bowman’s starting job will be waiting for him when he recovers from the impossible-to-forget ACL tear that knocked him out of the NFC Championship Game in January. But the 49ers won’t rush his rehabilitation, and the smart money is on Bowman returning after the 49ers’ bye in Week 9.
During Bowman’s absence, a diverse and deep group will compete to play alongside Patrick Willis.
The 49ers used a third-round draft pick on Chris Borland, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for 2013. If Willis and Bowman – athletic, instinctual and fast enough to keep pace in a pass-heavy NFL – are the inside linebackers of the future, Borland is a nod to the past. He’s smallish with a barrel chest and has short arms and legs.
But he plays with heart and hustle, and he always seemed to find his way to the ballcarrier when he played at Wisconsin. He and Michael Wilhoite, who filled in when Willis was nicked last year, have to be considered the front-runners for the position. Nick Moody, a sixth-round pick a year ago and the most athletic of the group, also will compete for the spot.
Then there’s the dark horse – ex-Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. He wasn’t drafted and enters the competition eager to prove doubters wrong. Never underestimate the power of a massive chip on someone’s shoulder.
Skov fell out of the draft because he didn’t run well before it. But he’s smart, he hustles, he’s familiar with the defense, and the coach who ultimately will decide the position battle – defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who previously coached at Stanford – is familiar with him.
Skov may not win the competition. But he makes it more interesting.
A risky pick?
The selection of Aaron Lynch in the fifth round shows that even after an embarrassing offseason of police-blotter incidents and court appearances, the 49ers haven’t changed their philosophy on the type of players they acquire.
Lynch, an outside linebacker who began his college career at Notre Dame, then transferred to South Florida, was removed from at least one team’s draft board due to concerns about his character. South Florida’s strength coach resigned after he publicly criticized the 49ers’ selection of Lynch.
A school’s strength coach typically is the first person an NFL team seeks when trying to get information on a prospect. Does he show up on time? How’s his work ethic? Is he liked and admired by teammates? It’s hard to believe Lynch’s strength coach gave a positive review.
It’s only fair, however, to point out that the 49ers have added a number of outstanding people – what general manager Trent Baalke calls “gold-helmet guys.” Running back Marcus Lattimore is universally beloved. Rookies Borland, wide receiver Bruce Ellington and cornerback Dontae Johnson also have made positive first impressions at team headquarters.
The question is whether a bevy of gold-helmet guys can prevent the 49ers’ reputation from being further tarnished.
A lot of local ties
From Keith Lewis to Larry Grant to Marlon Moore, the 49ers always seem to have at least one player with Sacramento-area ties. This year, there are many.
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson lives in Elk Grove. Wide receiver and return man Devon Wylie played at Granite Bay High School. Asante Cleveland, who is vying to be the 49ers’ blocking tight end this season, played at Christian Brothers. Quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson played at Sacramento State.
Two former UC Davis players, tight end Taylor Sloat and linebacker Colin Kelly, are among 15 players trying out for the squad this weekend. Meanwhile, a spot on the 90-man roster opened Saturday when offensive lineman Luke Marquardt was waived and placed on injured reserve with a broken foot.
Sloat caught 22 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns for the Aggies last year. Kelly is trying out at the crowded inside-linebacker spot. But he ran his 40-yard dash in a Bowman-like 4.5 seconds, and he may be intriguing to the 49ers as a potential special-teams ace.