San Francisco 49ers

Battle stations! Inside linebacker gets top billing at 49ers training camp

Over the next three days, I’ll try to hit on the most intriguing battles in 49ers training camp, which gets underway with a Thursday practice.

As usual, the 49ers have a stacked and established roster with few starting spots in doubt. And as usual, the most desperate competitions will be among young players trying to make the 53-man roster and eight-man practice squad. But injuries and holdouts could make this summer’s competition a bit spicier than in recent years and put some starting spots up for grabs. To wit:

Inside linebacker

This competition gets top billing because it’s for a starting spot, because there’s a nice array of competitors, and because it’s such a visible position. That is, the 49ers’ inside linebackers make a lot of plays against the run, in coverage and as pass rushers, and it will be fun to watch how they stack up on the practice field and in preseason games this summer.

NaVorro Bowman (ACL recovery) is expected to go on the physically-unable-to-perform list when he reports to camp this week. The smart money on his return is after the team’s Week 8 bye. One of Bowman’s understudies, veteran Michael Wilhoite, doesn’t have a lot of experience. He’s played in 21 games, starting two, since he was an undrafted rookie from Washburn in 2011. But it’s more experience than anyone else in the competition. Wilhoite was the de facto “starter” in the spring, and he has to be considered the front-runner to play next to Patrick Willis in Week 1.

There are three players nipping at his heels. The 49ers used a fairly high pick – a third-rounder – on Chris Borland in May. He isn’t going to win any best body or speed (or arm length) competitions. But he was extremely productive in a big-time conference at Wisconsin, and he also is sharp. That is, a veteran like Wilhoite usually can count on a rookie to be slow on the uptake. That won’t be the case with Borland (or Shayne Skov).

Next up is Nick Moody, the fastest and most athletic of the challengers and, from a physical standpoint, the most similar to Bowman and Willis. Moody suffered a broken hand last year and played in only four contests. The 49ers drafted him in the sixth round in 2013 figuring he’d, at the very least, be valuable on special teams.

What’s interesting about Moody is that he played more safety than linebacker at Florida State. That is, he has skills that NFL inside linebackers have had to rely on more and more as the league becomes increasingly pass-oriented. The flip side is that he doesn’t have a lot of experience at his current position, and with plenty of competition for roster spots, he doesn’t have the luxury of developing slowly.

Finally, there’s Skov, whom I tabbed as my dark horse at the position. His advantage is that he’s familiar with the defense, having played it at Stanford. He’s also familiar to the man who has a huge say in who stays and who goes on the roster, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Skov’s best chance may be to prove his worth as a special teamer and to show he’s more valuable on the roster than Moody.

Underdog: Shayne Skov’s best route to a roster spot

Something else to keep in mind: The players above also are competing to be Willis’ backup. The veteran linebacker has dealt with hamstring, groin and broken-hand issues in recent years. And he loves to practice, meaning that he’s probably not going to be like Justin Smith or Frank Gore and sit out large portions of camp. That raises the possibility of an injury, as well as the possibility that the 49ers could have two new starters at inside linebacker at some point early in the season.

Next: right guard.