One of the questions the San Francisco 49ers need to answer this offseason is how to replace NaVorro Bowman while he recovers from knee surgery. While Bowman could technically get back for the start of the season, it seems likely that he'll either be inactive early in the season, or will start the year on the PUP list, and miss at least six games. Whatever the case, the 49ers will be looking for ways to cover for his absence next to Patrick Willis.
Michael Wilhoite would seem to be the guy who will handle most of those snaps. He was the primary backup at inside linebacker in 2013, filling in for Patrick Willis when he missed two games. He is an exclusive rights free agent, which means he will be back in 2014, likely at the veteran's minimum.
This seems fairly certain, but the 49ers do have a couple other options to compete in the offseason workout program and training camp. Darius Fleming moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, but with two torn ACLs the last two years, he is basically a lottery ticket with long odds. On the other hand, soon to be second year linebacker Nick Moody will be someone to watch in 2014.
The 49ers drafted Moody in the sixth round, and the common belief across the board was that Moody would be a special teams guy. He missed most of the year with an injury, but came off short term injured reserve to get some special teams work. He was a bit behind the curve because of the injury, but the team obviously has some high hopes for his production in that area.
The question in my mind is if we can expect much in the way of work on the defensive side of the ball, or if he is going to end up being more of a Colin Jones type of player. Jones was drafted for his special teams work, and saw little to no time in any other capacity before the 49ers traded him.
Moody was a safety for much of his college career, but then switched to linebacker in 2012. He is very much a work in progress at the position, but it remains to be seen if he has the size and strength needed to play the position at the NFL level. He entered the league only six pounds lighter than NaVorro Bowman, who fell in the draft because some folks thought he was too small and could not do enough to shed blockers.
The NFL Combine is not the best option for assessing how a player will convert to the NFL, but it does provide some manner of insight. Bowman had six pounds on Moody in the Combine, but the most interesting difference is that Bowman did 27 bench press reps, and Moody did 17. I don't think this is any sort of be-all, end-all definition of player strength, but I do think it's something at least to note.
I have to think Moody will get some opportunities at inside linebacker. The team likely will look to add at least one more player to the competition, whether it be a veteran in free agency, or a day three draft pick. There is no need to go too crazy at the position, but the team needs to boost its depth. We might get a better idea of what they think of Moody based on how they approach the position in free agency and the draft.
This past season we saw more rotation for Justin Smith and Ray McDonald, giving them more breathers than in year's past. I don't think we see Patrick Willis rotating off, but if the team is comfortable with Moody, maybe he rotates with Michael Wilhoite.