Taking a break from the offense, we'll now take a look at one of the more promising positions on the 49ers roster, the inside linebackers. If you're just joining us, the 3-4 defense that the 49ers run (and will continue to run in 2011 under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio) utilizes three defensive linemen and four linebackers, two outside and two inside. Inside, they've got one sure-fire beast-and-a-half, and a couple players who could definitely fill the position in 2011, coupled with some decent depth. It's one of the lower priority positions to address this offseason, though a certain player leaving for free agency may just influence some things.
|2010 - Patrick Willis||15||6||46||0||0||0||101||27||128|
In 2010, Willis registered his lowest tackle total of his short career. His number was down almost fifty from his highest season to date, he matched his lowest pass deflection number of his career and he failed to pick off a single ball throughout the duration of the season. There was actually a game I watched this season in which I visibly thought I saw Willis not being a beast.
And yet, if not for a hand injury and surgery, Willis would have been starting for the NFC All-Star team in the Pro Bowl just two days ago. Aside from one off game, Willis hasn't taken any kind of tangible step back. He's sharing the tackles with the player mentioned after the jump, and he was a little beat up over the course of the season. Willis' job as the MIKE linebacker (left inside) is perhaps the most secure job on the 49ers roster. There's not a player more entrenched in his spot than Willis, probably the best at the position throughout the entire NFL.
The only thing to really consider is whether or not Mike Singletary and Greg Manusky's absence will impact him at all. He's been in the same defensive system with the same defensive coaches throughout his NFL career to this point, so that might mean something. But probably not.
After the jump, we take a look at the other inside linebacker options on the 49ers' roster, 2011 free agents for the position and of course, the 2011 NFL draft ...
|2010 - Takeo Spikes||16||0||0||3||9||0||81||27||108|
Spikes tied his third highest tackle total last season, his thirteenth in the National Football League. At 34 years of age, he had one of his best games of said career in the red and gold jut last year, and it's a testament to just how hard he works and how passionate he is about the game of football. You folks may remember the losing effort in week thirteen against the Green Bay Packers, the aforementioned game in which I noticed Willis slumping. It was a much different story for Takeo, as he was in on seventeen total tackles and was in the face of Aaron Rodgers more than once.
It was a year in which he notched three interceptions and nine pass deflections, illustrating his value all over the field. I've said numerous times that I trust Spikes in any situation on any down and I stand by that today. It's true that he posted a big fat goose egg in the sacks column, for the first time in his career, but if you saw Spikes and Willis go over the middle after a quarterback, it was a very scary thing and Willis was usually the guy to get the sack in that scenario - nothing wrong with that.
I think, without question, that Spikes has plenty enough left in him to have another season like he had in 2010. Now, his future depends on the guy below and whether or not the 49ers can get him signed as he's a free agent.
|2010 - NaVorro Bowman||14||0||0||0||0||0||20||6||26|
Here's the x-factor when it comes to the inside linebackers. Bowman appears to be a better fit for the MIKE position (and had a stellar performance starting in that role in week seventeen), but would be challenging perhaps the best player in the league at said position if he was going for MIKE. The 49ers just couldn't pass up on his potential in the third round, especially considering that other teams had him rated in the first round.
So, he's slated as the TED linebacker of the future. He had mixed results in limited playing time last season. If anybody recalls, there was a rumor that Takeo Spikes was going to lose his job, then he played very well and the coaches said it wasn't going to happen - then he continued playing well and suddenly he "needed rest," - something Takeo vehemently disagreed with - "for the playoffs." So Bowman got some time and he did not perform as advertised. He missed tackles and whiffed hard, and I honestly feel like he lost the 49ers the Panthers game by giving up those big gains through the air.
Personally, I feel as though Bowman can be the TED in the future. He needs to bulk up a little more, but there is so much there to work with. It's just a question as to whether or not he's ready, and as it stands now, it doesn't appear that he is, and if you factor in the CBA talks, maybe he doesn't get as much of a chance to improve this offseason as he normally would, especially with a new defensive staff coming in.
McKillop was the head-scratcher pick when he was drafted, and remains a guy with a questionable future in the 49ers organization. He began to make a name for himself on special teams in 2009 and was very solid there. He was fitting in almost seamlessly to Jeff Ulbrich's spot. He sat out the 2010 season on injured reserve and looks to be back this coming season. He will have to fight for his spot on the roster, but the 49ers definitely need to special teams help.
|2010 - Keaton Kristick||3||0||0||0||0||0||6||0||6|
He was a backup during the regular season and did not play all that much, nor did he make his presence felt on special teams. He'll battle with Scott McKillop for a roster spot, and might have some value if the 49ers think he's better being a TED than McKillop.
The big thing is what's going on at the TED linebacker position. Takeo Spikes is a free agent, and even if he were to re-sign, he's not the guaranteed starter (even though a poll on Niners Nation saw 88% [1186 votes] go his way, vouching for him to start over Bowman, who picked up 10% [139 votes] while there were 9 votes for "other") which may sway his decision one way or the other. I feel as though Takeo is the best option for the job, with Bowman getting a chance to prove himself - just not on 4th quarter, last second drives. Still, we'll look at the options in free agency and the 2011 NFL Draft.
As for the rest, I see McKillop battling successfully for his roster spot, providing he is healthy, and the 49ers begin the season with four inside linebackers. Kristick will go to the practice squad or be released entirely.
David Harris, New York Jets: He's relatively young, and plays in the 3-4. He's generally in the MIKE position, but he could still be an option for the 49ers if he comes cheap enough. Problem is, I don't think he will.
Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ruud has had a down season in the 3-4, playing the MIKE position as Harris above, and might just be better suited for the TED spot. His coverage is lacking and that is a big thing, Spike is still a better option - but an upset Ruud with something to prove (being passed over for an extension in TB) might just be dangerous next to Patrick Willis and someone the 49ers should consider as a secondary option.
Beyond those two, there really aren't many options out there. The best option in my mind would be Takeo Spikes and NaVorro Bowman, and I think the 49ers should focus a lot of efforts in getting Spikes back under contract. Still, if you want to browse a list of all free agent linebackers, click here. It does include MIKE, TED and the outside linebackers, however.
I don't see any of the top end guys going to the 49ers early on, not with NaVorro Bowman just drafted. Someone like Greg Jones is the prototypical weakside linebacker in the 3-4, he's athletic and does just about everything well, but he'll likely go somewhere in the second round and the Niners can't commit that kind of pick to that position right now.
Someone mentioned Casey Matthews (related to the beast on the Packers) in the Niners Nation After Dark thread, and I don't know if they said it just because name recognition and pedigree, but I actually like Casey a lot as a TED linebacker and would see him as a viable option later in the draft. The problem is, again, the 49ers invested a third round pick on NaVorro Bowman, and if you don't bring Spikes back, you won't solve anything by bringing in another rookie.