Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in-90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we'll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not strictly one per day but Fooch is a crazy person who manages this blog with no rhyme or reason and it's worked so far. Who am I to argue?
The San Francisco 49ers had a tumultuous offseason at the inside linebacker position, with Patrick Willis and Chris Borland both retiring. A position of ridiculous strength becomes a question mark for the first time in nearly a decade. NaVorro Bowman is back from his knee injury, and Michael Wilhoite was a very capable performer in place of Bowman last year. However, there are still questions about both players as we head into 2015.
One guy who could compete with Wilhoite for a starting role is Philip Wheeler. The 49ers signed Wheeler this year to a one-year deal worth up to $1.35 million. He will receive a base salary of $870,000, a roster bonus of $130,000, and can earn up to $350,000 in incentives listed as "not likely to be earned". The roster bonus is payable if he is on the 53-man roster for Week 1.
Wheeler was a free agent due to his release by the Miami Dolphins. Wheeler had previously signed a five year $26 million deal with the Dolphins following a strong 2012 season with the Oakland Raiders. Wheeler started 20 games over two seasons with the Dolphins, and was released due to general ineffectiveness. He criticized the coaching staff following a Week 6 loss, and it became quickly apparent the Dolphins were prepared to move on.
Wheeler had a fairly abysmal 2013 season. He had some moments in 2014, but it was not enough to save his job. For comparison's sake, here are his PFF grades from 2014:
And here are his PFF grades from his strong 2012 season with the Oakland Raiders. He put up a great year when he was up for a contract, and then struggled in 2013 and 2014. He is on another one year deal, so we'll see what the 30-year old linebacker brings to the table in another prove-it year:
Why he might improve in 2015:
The biggest thing in his favor is that he will be back with the man who was his defensive coordinator in 2012. Jason Tarver was the Raiders DC from 2012 to 2014, and now joins the 49ers as their linebackers coach and a senior defensive assistant. This does not guarantee Wheeler finds his way, and odds are fairly strong that he is in a reserve role anyway. But re-connecting with a coach who was there for his best year strikes me as a good thing.
Why he might regress in 2015:
He is playing from behind on the 49ers linebacker depth chart, and he is officially on the wrong side of 30. PFF's grades indicate some improvement from 2013 to 2014, but that was in a starting role. He very well might start to see some further decline in his skills as he gets older. And if he ends up in a reserve role, he might not get the consistent snaps he needs to get into a sufficient rhythm. He very well could be comfortable in a reserve role, but that is one thing to consider.
Odds of making the roster:
I don't expect him to leap-frog Wilhoite for a starting role, but given all the turnover, his chances of making the roster are pretty strong. Desmond Bishop, Nick Moody, Shayne Skov and Nicke Bellore are all competing for opportunities as well. Bellore is likely going to be an exclusive special teams player. Moody has special teams and some linebacker experience, and of course is younger. Bishop was a late 2014 signee after Chris Borland's injury. He played primarily on special teams, and would seem to be a low man on the totem pole with Shayne Skov. If I were to rank roster likelihood, it would be Wheeler, Moody, Bishop and then Skov, with Bellore separated because of his special teams connection.