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49ers rookies 2014 review: Chris Borland

How did the San Francisco 49ers' third-round pick fare? Did he exceed our expectations or fall short? The answer should be obvious.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the course of last offseason, we ran a series of posts here called 90-in-90. They were a look at the 90 (or so) players on the 90-man roster at the time, what they've done to this point and what is expected of them heading into the coming season. For rookies, it was a look at their expected impact and odds of making the roster. We're going to revisit those posts now and see if we were right.

First, I've decided to take a look at inside linebacker Chris Borland, perhaps the biggest surprise of the season. I'll admit that I was among Borland's detractors once he was drafted -- I liked Shayne Skov better for the most part, and I do recall quite a few people, including analysts, agreeing with me. Many people here were upset about a third-round pick being used on the guy.

I don't know how our own David Neumann felt his value measured out as far as draft positioning goes, but he was certainly not among Borland's detractors. He wrote the 90-in-90 post and called Borland a "smart player who diagnoses plays quickly, consistently puts himself in good position and is a reliable tackler." He stated that Borland's biggest deficiency is his (in)ability to take on and shed blockers.

That wound up being more or less true. What I think was more interesting going back to this post is that Neumann put the chances of Borland actually contributing this season at pretty good. More than that, he put him on the same level as Michael Wilhoite. As I recall, that wasn't a particularly popular opinion, given that Wilhoite had been playing well in relief previously.

Now, this prediction didn't wind up being totally accurate. Borland struggled in the preseason and was clearly out-played by Wilhoite, so he sat on the sidelines while Wilhoite started in place of NaVorro Bowman (and aside from the season opener, played well). It wasn't until Patrick Willis went down that Borland got his chance and played absolutely out of his mind.

It actually kind of reminded me of Bowman's first year in the league to an extent. I know that Bowman is now legitimately one of the top five linebackers in the league, but he was downright bad for his first couple games, just like Borland was in the preseason. But Borland absolutely lit things up when he got his starting opportunity in Willis' spot.

He was fast, he made all the tackles and he even performed well in the area he was predicted to struggle: dealing with blockers. I didn't notice him getting pushed around a lot, though I do think his speed was lacking and his instincts obviously are not on par with Willis or Bowman. There were plenty of plays where you forgot for a moment that those guys were gone because Borland was playing so well, but there were also plays when Borland was just out of position enough to let the opponent gain yardage that the other guys wouldn't.

Whatever the case, as far as our 90-in-90 post is concerned, I think Neumann nailed it pretty well. He valued Borland higher than most at the time, correctly identified his strengths and weaknesses and even suggested he'd get significant playing time this past season. It's unfortunate that he had to, but when he did, he out-performed Wilhoite and secured himself a job going forward.

My guess is that Borland will be the primary backup going forward, and insurance in the event that something ever happens with Willis or Bowman, injury-wise or contract-wise.