After sustaining that gruesome knee injury in the 49ers' NFC Championship loss to Seattle, NaVorro Bowman is expected to be shelved until November or so, according to Jim Harbaugh. This leaves a significant void alongside Patrick Willis in the starting lineup heading into 2014. When Willis missed time last season with a groin injury, Michael Wilhoite filled the role and played admirably. This has led many to infer that Wilhoite is the most likely candidate to nab the starting role, but Jim Harbaugh loves competition and subscribes to the notion that iron sharpens iron. Furthermore, the team will have to add another body just in terms of securing adequate depth.
The 49ers could obviously pick up an inside linebacker with their bevy of draft picks, but it's doubtful they use a high-round pick on the position and a later round pick wouldn't realistically compete for a starting role. Free agency is the more likely place for the team to explore options at the position. Rotoworld provides a continually updated, comprehensive list of free agents for those who are interested in perusing that and ESPN's Bill Williamson recently offered his thoughts on the matter .
For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on some possible targets the Niners could pursue:
1. Larry Grant
Larry Grant played extremely well during his time with the 49ers. While the free agent hasn't garnered much interest from other teams and was released by the Bears in 2013, the 49ers have first hand experience with Grant. They know he's capable of making an impact in the starting lineup. In December of 2011, he filled in for an injured Patrick Willis' and was a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the field. Notably against Pittsburgh and Seattle, Grant made game-changing plays, registering four defended passes against the Steelers and a game-clinching forced fumble against the Seahawks. The red flag here is that the 49ers chose not to re-sign Grant following a four-game suspension for PEDs prior to the 2013 season. The Niners also didn't look to Grant when Patrick Willis was hurt, successfully choosing to elevate Michael Wilhoite. Are the PEDs a factor here? At any rate, this signals a lack of interest on behalf of the front office but interest in Grant may rekindle due to his familiarity and prior track record.
2. Akeem Jordan
Jordan spent six seasons with Philadelphia before joining the Chiefs for his 2013 campaign. He's started 44 games over the course of his career, and his stat line includes 329 total tackles, one sack, seven defended passes, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. ESPN's Dan Teicher provided a top-line report of Jordan yesterday. The report notes his solid play as a rotational player for Kansas City, run-stopping ability, and special teams value. It's worth mentioning that Kansas City runs a 3-4 defense, which would be a big plus in bringing Jordan over to the Bay Area. Teicher notes that the Chiefs have been grooming 2013 fourth-round selection Nico Johnson to take over and, if confident he's ready, would likely not re-sign Jordan. With San Francisco's seeming ambivalence toward Grant, Jordan would be a great addition, especially considering his special teams ability. The potential obstacles here are price (which could be well out of the 49ers' range) and competition from other teams who may offer more money and the opportunity for a full-time starting role.
3. Dan Connor
The seven-year veteran veteran out of "Linebacker U" (Penn State) most recently spent time with the vaunted Carolina Panthers defense. Standing 6'2", 241 lbs., Connor provides similar size to Bowman and Willis, with an inch or two of added height. The other benefit the former Nittany Lion brings to the table is starting experience. From 2010-2012, he started 27 games for the Panthers and Cowboys, registering 178 total tackles, one sack, two defended passes, and a forced fumble. Connor would be an attractive option if the price is right.
4. Nick Barnett
Barnett is a former first round pick and 12-year veteran. An All-Pro in 2007, the longtime Green Bay Packer has been a starter every season of his career with the exception of last year, playing a reserve role for Washington behind the likes of Brian Orakpo, London Fletcher, Ryan Kerrigan, and Perry Riley. He's coming off a late-season MCL sprain and turns 33 years old in May but inside linebackers can generally play effectively through their mid thirties. Look no further than Barnett's former teammate, London Fletcher, who was selected to the 2012 Pro Bowl at age 37. With Barnett only garnering a one-year deal for a backup role last season, he can likely be had on the cheap and has experience playing in the 3-4 scheme. But arthroscopic knee surgery, stem cell treatment, and an MCL sprain spring serious health concerns for a 49ers defense that earns its bread in the speed department.
One way or another, the 49ers will be looking to add serviceable talent at inside linebacker. There's going to be a huge drop off from Bowman (arguably the game's best inside linebacker) no matter who they assign to the starting role; the key is to mitigate that discrepancy as much as possible. At the same time, the team is not going to invest much money at all for a stop-gap player who may ultimately be buried on the depth chart or cut. From the perspective of potential free agents, they'll be well aware of the situation and must be willing to accept the fact that they're vying for a short-term starting role. Wilhoite remains the favorite here, no question, and Moody also figures into the mix, but it is fully expected the Niners will acquire another backer to galvanize the competition.
Of all the aforementioned options, Grant seems like the best bet unless the lack of PED use resulted in a decline. He will come at a bargain price, has previous experience in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme, and had a successful stint as a starter in 2011. But if the 49ers declined to bring him in last year, there is reason to think they'll pass on him again this year. Akeem Jordan could ultimately be an even better signing but whether or not the Niners will be in position to make a play for him remains to be seen. There are plenty of options on the table, so it will be an interesting storyline to monitor as the offseason wears on.