If there was one position in which the San Francisco 49ers were seemingly set going into the draft, it was at inside linebacker. They field perhaps the two best players in the league at the position to go along with sufficient depth players behind them. That didn't stop Trent Baalke from adding Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland to the mix with the 77th overall selection in this year's draft.
As an inside linebacker with a Big Ten pedigree, Borland tends to attract the standard array of compliments, most of which don't happen to be all that useful in helping us learn what type of player he is. He's just a football player. Fantastic leader. Intelligent. You know the type. Let's go to the tape and see if we can find some better ways to describe the 49ers' newest inside linebacker.
Stack and Shed
The first thing that Bill Walsh mentions when evaluating inside linebackers is the ability to take on blockers.
The inside linebacker has to be substantial enough to meet blockers coming from any number of angles and not be knocked around the field easily.
Before an inside linebacker can use his athleticism to get to the ballcarrier and actually make tackles, most of the time he's going to have to dispose of a blocker first. In scouting lingo, this is often referred to as "stacking and shedding." A linebacker must be able to attack the blocker and initiate contact, stand his ground and then rid himself of the blocker so that he can move to the ballcarrier. We don't have to look far to find an example of how this should look. Pull up any 49ers game from the past several seasons and watch a few running plays. It won't be long before you see either Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman executing this to perfection. Here's an example I pulled from the Seattle game in Week 14 last season:
The ability to perform this task is my single biggest concern about Chris Borland's game. Borland struggles to shed blocks and all too often when an offensive linemen (or even a tight end) gets their hands on him, it's game over. Borland is driven backwards and out of the play, occasionally getting taken all the way to the ground. In Wisconsin's 2012 bowl game against Stanford, Borland was physically dominated by the Cardinal offensive line and was seemingly incapable of freeing himself once the blocker latched on.
Many will point to his short arms at this point and at 29 ¼" long, they certainly are not ideal length. The most commonly used technique for shedding blocks is for the defender to get his hands inside on the chest of the blocker, extend his arms or "bench press" to create separation and then toss the blocker to one side or the other to get by him. The longer your arms, the easier this is to accomplish because you can prevent the blocker from getting into your body and latching on.
But the short arms aren't my biggest concern. It's the avoidance of contact. Rather than attacking the blocker, Borland typically looks to go around him instead. As Coach Walsh points out:
They cannot avoid a lot of people to get to the ball or they won't get there. If they take the way around somebody to avoid being blocked, then they have, in effect, been blocked.
By choosing to go around the blocker instead of through him, Borland can find himself out of position. If you watch the video above, there are several examples of Borland doing exactly this and opening up a cutback lane for the running back. Perhaps he does this as a way of compensating for his short arms, not thinking that he can effectively stack and shed. Even if that were the case, attacking the blocker and getting blocked is preferable to going around the blocker and getting blocked as the latter can potentially close up the hole—or limit space—for the running back, making it easier for one of your teammates to come through and finish up the play.
I've seen several places mention this skill as a strength for Borland, including writers and scouts whose opinion I trust a great deal. However, in the five games that I watched, I simply cannot see it and that Stanford game is like the nightmare I fall back into every time I go to sleep.
If shedding blocks is Borland's biggest weakness, his instincts are his biggest strength. By instincts, I'm referring to the ability to diagnose what the offense is trying to do and react to it without hesitation. As Coach Walsh puts it:
Instinct is mandatory at this position. He must be able to watch the ball and read the blocking. It's difficult to describe how to look for instinct, but the guys who find a way to get to the football and make the tackle, they probably have it.
This absolutely jumps out at you when watching Borland on tape. He rarely diagnoses a play incorrectly and frequently reacts to what's happening long before any of his teammates do. There were several instances where the opposing team would run to the opposite side of the field from Borland's initial alignment and he would beat Wisconsin's other inside linebacker (that was on the play side to begin with) to the ball because of the head start he had by quickly diagnosing the play.
Borland's instincts were especially prevalent when defending read option plays. He did a fantastic job of not committing to either the quarterback or the running back too early. Once the quarterback had made the decision to keep or give, Borland would react accordingly and close for the tackle.
Judging from what I've read, Borland is a bit underrated as an athlete. He doesn't have great straight-line speed, as evidenced by his 4.83-second 40-yard dash time. But he does play faster than that on tape and has superb short-area quickness (his times in the 3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle were both slightly quicker that Willis's times at the combine).
When he's not the direct target of an offensive lineman, this ability to quickly change direction helps him weave through all of the bodies in the box and find the running back. His acceleration is top-notch and he seldom takes any wasted steps when coming out of his stance. Combined with his ability to diagnose plays quickly, Borland is able to erase space between him and the ballcarrier in a hurry.
Unlike the way that he takes on blockers, Borland tackles with power and leverage. He scarcely fails to finish a tackle once he has the ballcarrier in his grasp. His knee bend is terrific and allows him to stay low to the ground and get underneath the pads of the ballcarrier. There is no better example than when Borland stones now-teammate Carlos Hyde at the goal line at the 0:51 mark in the video above. For emphasis, here it is in GIF form:
Borland moves laterally just enough to get into the hole, keeps his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and then explodes through Hyde, driving him back and to the ground. Another similar play occurred earlier in that same game on a 4th-and-1 play in which Borland prevented a conversion. Considering that Hyde is a large, powerful running back that just seems to always be going forward, it was impressive seeing Borland getting the better of him on several occasions.
I'm lumping pass coverage and pass rushing together, mostly because there just weren't many instances in which I felt comfortable evaluating Borland in coverage. To begin with, Borland has stated he wasn't asked to cover a lot while at Wisconsin and in the games that I watched there weren't a ton of examples. To make matters more difficult, without the benefit of the All-22 camera angle, the times that Borland did drop into coverage it was tough to track him unless there was a replay with a better camera angle.
From what I was able to gather, Borland should be effective in the hook/curl areas in zone coverage where his instincts and agility will suit him well. I have doubts that he will be as effective if asked to play man coverage against running backs and tight ends as his lack of speed and height can be exploited more easily.
As a pass rusher, Borland had a lot of success pressuring the quarterback, particularly when blitzing through the interior of the offensive line. He flashed a Bowman-esque spin move on several occasions and was simply too quick for most of the guards he faced to handle.
How does he fit?
Borland will be one of the few 49ers' rookies with an opportunity to get playing time right away. With the devastating knee injury suffered by NaVorro Bowman in the NFC Championship game, the inside linebacker spot next to Patrick Willis will almost certainly be available for at least a few weeks to begin the season. Michael Wilhoite has been effective in spot duty in the past while filling in for Willis but by no stretch is he such a talented player that there won't be competition for the interim inside linebacker opening.
If Borland does find himself on the field at the season's open, he will undoubtedly benefit from playing alongside the league's premier inside linebacker. I'm confident that the 49ers will be able to hide his deficiency in shedding blockers when they align in their 3-4 defense. San Francisco plays more of a one-gap 3-4, meaning their defensive line won't always be taking up blockers and allowing the inside linebackers to roam free—Willis and Bowman both take on their fair share of blockers. But it often plays out that the player on the play side will shoot downhill to take on the blocker while the other will scrape over the top and make the play. I would expect Willis to take on the role of doing more of the dirty work to allow Borland to play to more of his strengths. Willis is good enough to still make plays while going through blockers and Borland will be freed up to use his excellent instincts to run to the ball.
That will be more difficult to accomplish when San Francisco is in their nickel package. The 49ers almost never drop a safety into the box when playing nickel. Instead, they rely on Willis and Bowman—along with the rest of their front—to defeat blocks and stop the run without the additional help. For the most part, this approach has been extremely successful. Having Borland in the lineup as opposed to Bowman will either force San Francisco to drop a safety down into the box to help with the run or to substitute him with another player (Wilhoite or Moody) that may be better suited for that role.
San Francisco has also relied on Willis and Bowman to take on the responsibility of covering opposing running backs and tight ends in man coverage. It's unlikely they'll be as willing to do that with Borland. By allowing Willis and Bowman to handle the running backs and tight ends in coverage, the safeties are free to either help out over the top to each side of the field or roam the middle, looking to jump intermediate crossing routes or deliver punishing blows to receivers when the ball was able to get there. If one of those safeties now has to man-up on a tight end or running back, that puts more pressure on their corners. The 49ers will likely adjust their strategy here depending on the opponent but it's very possible we could see Borland removed from the field in nickel situations.
For the long term, I think Borland can develop into a quality reserve player and core special teamer. I'm not as optimistic about his ability as a starter for more than just a couple games at a time in case of injury, but if he can become more aggressive taking on blockers and is more effective in pass coverage than I'm giving him credit for, that would certainly be cause to reconsider.