San Francisco 49ers

49ers may have chance for another elite inside linebacker duo

UCLA linebacker Myles Jack looks on from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. Stanford won 31-10.
UCLA linebacker Myles Jack looks on from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Stanford, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. Stanford won 31-10. AP

The scouting combine begins this week, and the 49ers will be busy. They are projected to have a league-high 12 picks and could use help at just about every position. We’ll look at every spot on the team as well as which college prospects might fit with the 49ers.

Inside linebacker

Need level: moderate

Under contract for 2016: Nick Bellore, NaVorro Bowman, Gerald Hodges, Shayne Skov

THE SITUATION

First the good news: Bowman not only made it through the season after sitting out 2014 with multiple knee-ligament tears, he led the NFL in tackles. Of course, that’s not entirely an enviable stat. The league’s tackle king typically is a good player on a bad defense, and that was the case with Bowman and the 49ers. They finished 29th in run defense and allowed a league-worst 20 rushing touchdowns. Only seven of Bowman’s 154 tackles came on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage.

But Bowman was able to hold up under that barrage and should be even better in 2016 now that he is two years removed from his knee surgery. The 49ers played their best a few years ago when they had two All-Pro caliber inside linebackers (Bowman and Patrick Willis) playing behind an excellent defensive line, and general manager Trent Baalke has a chance to begin to replicate that this offseason. The draft has abyss-like depth at defensive line and also abounds with fast inside linebackers, including UCLA’s Myles Jack, a popular choice for the 49ers at the seventh pick.

The 49ers traded for Hodges last season, and he started the last four games. Michael Wilhoite, who has started 30 games the last three seasons, and Ray-Ray Armstrong are restricted free agents. Bellore was a coverage team specialist who came from the Jets with special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr. It’s unknown if McGaughey’s replacement, Derius Swinton II, will want to sign his own favorites.

THE 2016 CLASS

Myles Jack, UCLA: He’s fast and athletic enough to be valuable in coverage and tough enough to pop 310-pound guards at the line of scrimmage. Jack isn’t huge, but he fits the profile of three-down linebackers like Bowman and Willis. He tore the meniscus in his knee last season and won’t take part in the combine drills. His medical report will be the most critical part of his combine experience.

Reggie Ragland, Alabama: He’s a big, traditional inside linebacker who is very good at taking on and shedding blocks from offensive linemen. Ragland weighed 259 pounds at the Senior Bowl, 15 pounds or so more than Bowman. Ragland’s 40-yard dash time will be scrutinized and teams will wonder whether he can stay on the field in third-down situations.

Darron Lee, Ohio State: He can be viewed as Ragland’s opposite. Lee looks more like a safety than an inside linebacker, but the position is evolving in that direction and he has the speed to be valuable in coverage. He’s a more physical version of Shaq Thompson, the Panthers’ 2015 first-round pick. Lee’s weigh in will be interesting but it’s notable that he’s young and is entering the draft as a red-shirt sophomore.

Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: If he hadn’t torn his ACL and LCL in Notre Dame’s bowl game, he’d be atop the list and competing with Jack for first inside linebacker taken. Smith had surgery in January, which means there’s a very good chance he won’t suit up in 2016. It’s hard to think that any team with a Top 15 pick would be that patient.

Antonio Morrison, Florida: He flies around the field like the Tasmanian Devil and is another inside linebacker who looks more like a strong safety. In some ways, he resembles Chris Borland, the 49ers’ 2014 third-round pick. Morrison’s arms, 30 3/8 inches, are short but not quite as stubby as Borland’s. Like Borland, Morrison could go in the third round.

MONDAY: The 49ers’ options at quarterback.

TUESDAY: Which running backs will help Hyde?

WEDNESDAY: The 49ers have few proven receivers.

THURSDAY: Chip Kelly favors WRs over TEs.

FRIDAY: Three spots up for grabs on o-line.

SATURDAY: The 49ers D-line must be restocked.

SUNDAY: SF can improve pass rush in good draft.

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

NFL Scouting Combine

  • When: Tuesday through Monday
  • Where: Indianapolis
  • Who: NFL executives and coaches, top college players eligible for draft
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