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49ers mid-season review: Inside linebackers

The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2014 season with a big question mark at inside linebacker. Michael Wilhoite has been a solid replacement through the first seven weeks, and now we just wait for the return of Bowman.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are closing in on the end of their bye week, and will be returning to practice on Monday. We are not exactly halfway through the season, but the timing of the bye is close enough that it makes sense to take a look at where everything stands. We will be going through each position over the next week. Thus far we have looked at the quarterbacksrunning backswide receiversoffensive linetight ends and defensive line. Today, we move to the inside linebackers.

Patrick Willis

Grade: 2.5 (9th out of 37) - 1.2 in pass rush, 2.5 in coverage, -0.2 against the run
Run stop %: t-32nd out of 59
Pass rush productivity: 4th out of 34
Tackling efficiency: 10th out of 45
Coverage snaps per reception: 9th out of 33

Michael Wilhoite

Grade: -2.6 (23rd out of 37); -0.8 in pass rush, -0.1 in coverage, -2.4 against the run
Run stop %: t-12th out of 32
Pass rush productivity: 23rd out of 34
Tackling efficiency: 20th out of 45
Coverage snaps per reception: 13th out of 33

Chris Borland

Grade: 1.2; 1.9 in pass rush

The 49ers entered the 2014 season with one big question mark at inside linebacker. NaVorro Bowman tore up his knee in the NFC title game, and it was all about who would replace him. The 49ers had Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody on the roster, and then drafted Chris Borland with a third round pick. Although it was an open competition, Wilhoite secured the job, in what appeared to be fairly short order.

Wilhoite does not grade out particularly well according to Pro Football Focus, but he has seemingly done solid work in place of Bowman. He does not have the same raw tools as Bowman, but as a replacement option, he is more than capable. Football Outsiders ranks teams defensive fronts through their adjusted sack rate, and their performance against the run. We can't clear out exactly who is responsible for what, but their run stats do give us some basic indicators.

The 49ers rank No. 6 in the NFL in "Second level yards". That stat measures "yards earned by opposing running backs against ... between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries." The presence of Antoine Bethea on the back-end of the run defense likely helps that strong performance given the amount of time he spends in the box. However, Patrick Willis and Michael Wilhoite are necessary to that ranking as well. They benefit from a strong defensive line slowing down the running backs as well, but we can't short-change Willis and Wilhoite in their performances against the run.

The 49ers head into the second half of their schedule with Willis dealing with a toe injury. There seems to be a belief that it is less serious than Tramaine Brock's toe injury, but we won't know for certain until we start seeing some practice reports. Brock missed five weeks with his toe injury, and was clearly rusty in his return in Week 7. Willis missed Week 7, and had the bye week to continue to rest. We'll see what Wednesday's report brings.

In the meantime, Chris Borland proved himself a capable replacement for Willis last week. He will return to special teams work when Willis returns, but the 49ers have potentially bought themselves a little bit of time. All of this gets us moving closer to the eventual return of NaVorro Bowman. Late November or early December seems like a reasonable time-frame for him to get back on the field, at which point Wilhoite returns to a special teams role. Given the nature of Bowman's injury, it will be interesting to see if the 49ers do any rotation with Bowman and work him in slowly, or if they just throw him back into the full time role and go from there.

Assuming Bowman is back on the field later this season (no reason to think not at this point), what are your expectations for him through the end of the season?