San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: Attrition takes its toll at ILB

San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) sits on the bench after losing 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans.
San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) sits on the bench after losing 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. AP

Over the last few days, I’ve been ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Inside linebacker

Recap. NaVorro Bowman missed the entire 2014 season, which at the time was viewed as a major bummer but which now seems like fortuitous timing. When the regular season rolls around, Bowman will have gone 19 months without playing a full game. That's a more than year-and-half-long rehabilitation, which gives him the best chance possible to overcome a gruesome, multi-ligament knee tear, an injury that is not nearly as conquerable as a more run-of-the-mill ACL tear. Meanwhile, Michael Wilhoite was the only inside linebacker to play all 16 games and finished second on the team with 87 combined tackles. Chris Borland finished first in that category -- 108 tackles -- despite starting only eight games. Then he shocked everyone by retiring from the game in March, less than a week after the man he replaced in the starting lineup, Patrick Willis, also retired. Nick Moody mostly played special teams, but ended up starting in the final two weeks, including a Week 16 loss to the Chargers in which the 49ers have up 38 points and 446 yards of offense. Desmond Bishop was signed late in the season; Shayne Skov spent time on the practice squad.

Outlook. Bowman took part in the bulk of the spring sessions and then reportedly aced his conditioning test Friday, both of which were good signs. He was not yet at full speed in the spring. Whether he can get close to 100 percent this summer will have a huge bearing on the position and would be a major confidence boost for the team as a whole. Bowman, after all, was perhaps the 49ers' top player -- defense and offense -- at the time of his injury. Wilhoite, who tried unsuccessfully for a contract extension in the offseason, is first in line to start opposite Bowman at inside linebacker, although he begins training camp on the sideline with a minor leg strain. Jim Tomsula has twice cited Moody as an up-and-coming player and you get the sense that he will get an opportunity for more playing time. Phillip Wheeler also is capable of getting a sizable role on defense this year. Skov, meanwhile, looked noticeable slimmer in the spring than he was last year. He said he was able to convert some of his upper-body bulk into lower-body weight, which has translated into better burst and more speed. Nick Bellore and Bishop round out the position but are viewed more as special teams players.

Question marks. A big question is whether the team will have two inside linebackers on the field for passing downs, which was what made them special during the Bowman-Willis era. The strength of the defense seems to lie with the safeties now, and rookie Jaquiski Tartt is nearly as big as a linebacker. ... Moody is perhaps the most Willis-and-Bowman-like of the young linebackers in terms of speed and athleticism. But does he have their intelligence and savvy? ... As noted above, Skov looked more fluid in the spring than he did a year ago. He seems to have the zany, oddball personality that other special teams standouts -- Blake Costanzo springs to mind -- have had in the past. Is that his best ticket to a 53-man roster spot?

Person of interest. It would be a fantastic story line if Bowman returns to full strength and leads the 49ers' defense back to prominence. He has taken on a noticeably larger leadership role with Willis and Justin Smith no longer in the building.

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49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. defensive line

4. running back

5. wide receiver

6. quarterback

7. tight end

8. inside linebacker

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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