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49ers positional review: Inside linebacker

The inside linebacker position is easily the least-disputed position on the San Francisco 49ers' roster, but they may need a new backup heading in to the 2013-14 season.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

We've taken a look at the outside linebackers, but now it's time to kick it inside and evaluate the roster. Of course, some might consider this post a little useless, given that the 49ers easily have the best group of inside linebackers in the NFL.

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I'd take it a step further and suggest that they have the best two inside linebackers in the NFL, individually. Meaning that Patrick WIllis is No. 1 and NaVorro Bowman is No. 2.

There were some who suggested that it was a "luxury," that the 49ers needed to pass up when there was talk of extending Bowman. Why would a team need the two best inside linebackers in the league? There were people suggesting that extending Dashon Goldson was a bigger priority.

Let's just say I'm glad those people are disappointed. Let's take a look at the inside linebackers below.

Patrick Willis

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2012 - Patrick Willis 16 .500 4.5 2 2 0 88 32 120

Willis continues to be measured by being the best inside linebacker in the NFL. Season in and season out, he shows us why that is. But over the past two seasons, Willis has been asked to do some different things. We're hearing Bowman's name more on those sideline tackles and and we see Bowman chasing down plays more and more.

That doesn't mean Willis is slowing down. Well, technically speaking he might have lost a tiny bit of speed because he's actually bulked up a little bit but no, Bowman is just being asked to do different things. Willis is covering a lot more, and I gotta say, he's damn good at it.

Willis was pretty darn good in coverage. He allowed one touchdown his way all season, picked off two passes, and batted down at least five passes. He was the best coverage linebacker by far last season, and I can't think of anybody close.

NaVorro Bowman

Sacks Interceptions Tackles
G Sacks YdsL Int Yds IntTD Solo Ast Total
2012 - NaVorro Bowman 16 2 9 1 11 0 93 51 144

And then we come to Bowman. If you recall, I loved the drafting of Bowman .. I thought it was one of the best picks this team has made in a very long time. I have to say I was worried during his rookie season though, because he looked just ... just awful. Fortunately, that was in very limited time.

Since then he's done nothing but be an absolute monster. He plays all over the field, he's not your prototypical TED linebacker by any stretch of the imagination. Willis actually came off the field this season from time to time, but Bowman stayed on. This was when the 49ers needed another corner in coverage. Bowman's duties remained the same on those plays.

I always wondered when another linebacker would come in the trumps Willis on range and angles, but I never expected that to be someone on our own team. Bowman is one half of a ridiculously high-level tandem of inside linebackers.

Larry Grant

We saw a lot of Grant in 2011. He stepped in for an injured Willis and he played pretty phenomenal football, given the circumstances. He looked like the best backup inside linebacker in the league. So the 49ers really wanted to hold on to him.

It's my belief that Grant could have went elsewhere and been a starter last season. Unfortunately for him, he didn't see a ton of snaps in the regular season, which was fortunate for the 49ers because it meant both Willis and Bowman were healthy.

Instead, Grant was primarily a special teamer, but we all felt totally secure knowing he was there just in case.

Tavares Gooden

Gooden is a special teamer and not much else. It's true that he'd step up if both top guys or if Grant was injured, but aside from that, he's a special teamer. Fortunately, he's pretty darn good on special teams. There's really not much else to say on him, as it stands.

Looking Forward

Willis and Bowman are the unquestioned starters going forward. That is easily the most undisputed position on the roster as far as starting roles go. Unfortunately, the 49ers will likely need to find a backup as Grant is set to hit free agency.

If the market has slowed on Grant, then I would love for the 49ers to re-sign him to a multi-year contract as a backup. I'm not sure if Grant would re-sign though, as I believe he wants a chance to start in the NFL.

On top of that, Gooden is simply not the guy the 49ers need at the position. He's a special teams player and he serves the team well in that role, but that's about it. He is not backup material, and will need to remain the No. 4 guy going forward.

It's likely the 49ers draft a backup somewhere around the fourth or fifth round, but bringing in a free agent is also a possibility, as there's plenty of veterans out there available.