We had more people suggesting that the 49ers' safety is a concern in free agency than I expected, though I personally think it is. I guess I just assumed people were totally confident despite some pretty big plays blowing up in our face from the safety position. Still, it's not as big an issue as some other positions on the team, though I don't think the position we'll look at today is going to demand any kind of concern.
Today, we'll take a look at the inside linebacker position and how that was looking last year and what it's looking like heading into free agency. It was most definitely a position of strength this past season, and guys like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are locked up for the foreseeable future, though the latter may be in line for an extension at some point next season.
That isn't to say that the position is totally locked down. In fact, the entirety of the depth at the position is up for free agency. Larry Grant is a free agent and could be on his way out given his high-level of play and the fact that he wants to start, while nobody else on the roster actually saw the field in significant time as an inside linebacker. Tavares Gooden was the next man up, but again, didn't see much time and is a free agent. Blake Costanzo was a special teamer and is a free agent, but everyone expects him back. Let's take a look at the individual players.
Did you ever see those one-second Miller High Life commercials where they just said one phrase but was still an accurate depiction of said beer? "HIGH LIFE!" and "CHUBBLY BUBBLY!" I feel like everything that needs to be said about Patrick Willis could be summed up in the same way. While it's mis-applied to the aforementioned High Life, Willis is so good at what he does that everybody knows it. We only need one word. Awesome. Playmaker. Badass. And yes, chubbly bubbly.
Go ahead and argue that he's not chubbly bubbly. I dare you. You can't. Because I'll hurt you with my palms.
Anyway, Willis is so good at everything we ever ask of him. He tackles anybody, he can catch anybody, he uses the best angles to make sure he can catch anybody and he hits hard. For a negative, Willis was actually beaten in coverage at times this season - usually by tight ends who are just too big. Jimmy Graham caught a touchdown pass over him that I'm sure no linebacker in the league would have prevented. He's locked up for the future and that's a very, very good thing.
I think I've made it abundantly clear that Bowman is my favorite player on the team not named Anthony Dixon. It definitely helps that he's incredibly good. Bowman's 2011 was exceedingly better than his 2010, and really, better than most inside linebackers in the NFL. It was his first full season as a starter and looked like a completely different player than the guy who was completely unable to make a tackle in his first season.
Maybe that judgement of his limited playing time is a bit harsh, but that's still in the past. The point is that Bowman made a serious case to contend with Willis for best linebacker in the league. Just typing that sentence feels like heresy, but it's true. He was a complete linebacker and is playing on a rookie deal. The 49ers will try like mad to extend him and keep these two together.
Grant is a guy I've always liked, and I've always considered him to be a really, really good backup without anything to support that information. When we signed him, I was ecstatic, and I couldn't really tell anybody why. His performance filling in this past season has shown everyone why. He was able to not only fill in servicably, but make plays like a starter. He knocked down multiple passes and was great rushing the passer. Best of all, he was a sure-tackler for most of the time out there.
But he wasn't perfect. The final game he received significant playing time, he started to have lapses in his coverage and mental mistakes. In short, he looked like an inexperienced player the times when he wasn't making big plays. Still, he might have made enough of those big plays to be on his way out this season and competing for a starting job elsewhere. Which means the backup is certainly a need for the 49ers in free agency.
I liked his signing, but I also thought he might see a little more time on defense. He only recorded one tackle on defense, but did stick with the core special teams group, and had 12 tackles in that regard. He's a free agent and could return to the team with a minimum type deal, but he doesn't inspire much confidence as an actual backup.
Oh man, this guy was fantastic this year. He's a special teamer and nothing else, but he's a damn good special teamer. He's the first core guy to come in and really fill a void that was left by losing all of Michael Robinson, Jeff Ulbrich and Donald Strickland in the same offseason, with the help of someone like C.J. Spillman. Still, Constanzo doesn't factor much into the picture in regards to the actual position of inside linebacker.