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San Francisco 49ers 2014 roster review: Inside linebackers

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We continue our position-by-position review of the 49ers' 2014 season with the inside linebackers featuring Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Chris Borland.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the San Francisco 49ers' outside linebacker position, the inside linebacker spot was a jumbled mess of nonsense that still somehow managed to turn out pretty great. In fact, the inside linebacker position was ravaged far worse than the outside, but somehow the 49ers managed to hold it all together.

I've said on more than one occasion that the 49ers don't just have the best group of inside linebackers in the NFL -- I've said that they have the indisputable best and second-best inside linebackers in the league. Not only are Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman the best team, they are the two best linebackers and they're so close in skill that it's scary.

But they both were injured for significant portions of last season, leaving Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland to pick up the slack. No big deal for those guys -- just a journeyman special teamer and a rookie taking the reigns from two All-World inside linebackers. No pressure, you guys.

What ended up happening was incredible -- WIlhoite out-played Borland initially and played well in relief of Bowman, then Willis got hurt and we found out that Borland just needed a little bit to adjust, because he out-played Wilhoite and looked an awful lot like the guys he was replacing from time to time. But we'll get to that more in-depth when we ... get to that. Let's start the review:

Patrick Willis - 6 games, 34 tackles, 1 interception, 3 passes defensed

Willis looked like Willis for the time he played, and there's not a whole lot else to say about that. Working alongside Wilhoite, he looked as good as ever and it's such a shame he lost so much of the season to a toe injury. Willis is officially getting up there in years, but I haven't noticed declining play by any stretch of the imagination. He'll return next season totally healthy and ready to play and there's really nothing else to say about him.

NaVorro Bowman

Bowman probably could have played near the end of the regular season, and that's a huge relief. Coming back from the kind of injuries he sustained is probably easier for an inside linebacker than it is for, say, a running back, but Bowman certainly would not have looked like himself had he played.

Now he has another full offseason with which to recover and there's not necessarily any reason to expect he can't return to form. Here, "form" means "one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Neither he nor Willis are in danger of losing their jobs to Borland, regardless of how well he played.

Michael Wilhoite - 16 games, 87 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions, 6 passes defenses

I expected good things out of Wilhoite, and he delivered. I think people let the 49ers' first game color their opinions of Wilhoite way too much. They suggested he was a terrible run defender based on that game, but then we saw what DeMarco Murray did later in the season. On top of that, I felt like it was in the 49ers' gameplan to give up the run in that game.

Whatever the case, Wilhoite was clearly deficient in one area: speed. Where he took excellent angles and looked great in relief, he didn't have the raw speed and agility that Willis and Bowman do to make up for those times he didn't take great angles. I thought he played extremely well though, with a couple bad outings here and there. He's good against the pass, good against the run and a sure-fire tackler.

Exactly what you want in a backup, and is certainly good enough to be a starter ... elsewhere.

Chris Borland - 14 games, 107 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, 5 passes defensed

We all saw Borland in the preseason -- he wasn't that great. He looked kind of slow out there and I wasn't all-that impressed with him on special teams. But when Willis went down with an injury and Borland took up his spot (more accurately, he and Wilhoite switched here and there, as what position each of them backs up is kind of a gray area given how much is asked of both Willis and Bowman) he played out of his mind.

Borland was fast, he was a sure-tackler and he covered well, I thought. There might be some expectation bias at play -- he may have looked better than he was at times given that there were few expectations for him. But overall, there's no denying that he was playing on Defensive Rookie of the Year-type level.

As the season wore on, I thought there were points in which Borland didn't look as good. His angles weren't quite as sharp as Willis or Bowman and he was out of position more than once. But ultimately, I don't think anybody can be dissatisfied with what he managed in 2014-15.

Nick Moody | Shayne Skov | Chase Thomas

To start, Moody is clearly ahead of the other two guys on the depth chart. He's primarily a special teamer, but when even more guys missed some time later in the season, it was Moody who stepped in and played some snaps. I think he did fine, with no egregiously bad plays and plenty solid ones. I'd imagine the 49ers want to evaluate him further as an actual backup.

Thomas isn't going to be much more than a special teamer and I don't know how I feel about Skov at this point. I'm in the "I thought Skov would be way better than Borland" boat and not afraid to admit it. He'll be a training camp body fighting for a spot on the roster next season, I imagine.

Looking Ahead

Some have suggested that maybe the 49ers have a controversy on their hands, given that Willis will earn more than $8 million 2015-16 and Bowman will earn more than $5 million. That's silly and so are the people that even suggest it. Willis and Bowman are set to make that much because they're worth that much on the field, and though Borland kind of blew our minds in such a way that mine is still in pieces around my office, making such a snap decision would be a huge mistake.

Going forward, I doubt much is going to change. I think the group of Willis, Bowman, Wilhoite, Borland and Moody is likely what we're looking at next season and I wouldn't be surprised if the 49ers actually went without drafting a potential inside linebacker this year. Wilhoite is likely to be tendered as an exclusive-rights free agent.

I'm not going to bother listing any of the available free agents, though if you want a link, you can see the current inside linebacker contracts here. As far as the draft goes, I'll do the usual and post this table from Dan Kadar of SB Nation, from his December rankings.

1. Eric Kendricks | 6'0, 230 pounds | ILB | UCLA
2. Benardick McKinney | 6'5, 249 pounds | ILB | Mississippi State
3. Denzel Perryman | 6'0, 242 pounds | ILB | Miami
4. Reggie Ragland | 6'2, 254 pounds | ILB | Alabama *
5. Hayes Pullard | 6'1, 235 pounds | ILB | Southern California
6. Stephone Anthony | 6'3, 245 pounds | ILB | Clemson
7. Amarlo Herrera | 6'2, 231 pounds | ILB | Georgia
8. Ben Heeney | 6'2, 230 pounds | ILB | Kansas
9. Ramik Wilson | 6'2, 237 pounds | ILB | Georgia
10. A.J. Johnson | 6'2, 245 pounds | ILB | Tennessee
11. Jeff Luc | 6'1, 251 pounds | ILB | Cincinnati
12. Bryce Hager | 6'2, 235 pounds | ILB | Baylor
13. Taiwan Jones | 6'3, 252 pounds | ILB | Michigan State
14. Mike Hull | 6'0, 232 pounds | ILB | Penn State
15. Trey DePriest | 6'2, 250 pounds | ILB | Alabama
16. Jordan Hicks | 6'1, 234 pounds | ILB | Texas
17. AJ Tarpley | 6'2, 241 pounds | ILB | Stanford
18. Quayshawn Nealy | 6'1, 236 pounds | ILB | Georgia Tech
19. Curtis Grant | 6'3, 240 pounds | ILB | Ohio State