When Patrick Willis abruptly announced his retirement from the NFL, we talked about how the San Francisco 49ers were perhaps the only team in the league that could realistically absorb the loss of such a high level inside linebacker and come out the other end looking fine. That was due to the fact that they had NaVorro Bowman and second year player Chris Borland, who played extremely well as a rookie.
Of course, things got a bit out of hand when Borland also announced his retirement from the league. That left the 49ers with Bowman, who had missed an entire season due to injury and who was not guaranteed to play at a high level, and guys like Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges, and Shayne Skov were left to pick up slack at the other inside spot.
Things turned out better than expected, at the very least. Bowman immediately returned to form, likely because the 49ers didn't try to rush him back in a lost previous season. Bowman was indisputably one of the best players in the league, and barring Eric Berry beating Hodgkin's lymphoma and a great season from Carson Palmer, he could have won Comeback Player of the Year honors.
But behind Bowman, things started to crack. Wilhoite got the start, and he looked more limited than he ever has in the NFL. I am a fan of what Wilhoite has been able do given he was never signed to play a huge amount of playing time. He's done far, far more than anyone ever expected of him. But the longer he plays, the more faults appear and things started to crack.
That said, let's take a quick look at some of the notable inside lineabackers in the NFL Draft.
- Reggie Ragland (Alabama)
- Kentrell Brothers (Missouri)
- Dominique Alexander (Oklahoma)
- Tyler Matakevich (Temple)
- Nick Vigil (Utah State)
- Scooby Wright III (Arizona)
- Blake Martinez (Stanford)
- Jared Norris (Utah)
- Nick Kwiatkoski (West Virginia)
- Luke Rhodes (William & Mary)
- Josh Forrest (Kentucky)
- Antonio Morrison (Florida)
- B.J. Goodson (Clemson)
- Elandon Roberts (Houston)
- Zeek Bigger (East Carolina)
Listing out potential inside linebacker prospects is obviously difficult because so much could change. There are plenty of players slated to play outside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment who could work well alongside Bowman, with guys like Myles Jack of UCLA, Darron Lee of Ohio State, Jaylon Smith of Notre Dame and Joshua Perry of Ohio State being of particular note.
Jack, for instance, is a rare talent that the 49ers can't pass up if they have the chance to land him, even though he's not regularly appearing on prospect rankings under inside linebackers. I really like Ragland a lot ... he's the kind of player who could slot in alongside Bowman and grow into one of the league's top players next to him. But he's going to go in the first round and the 49ers would need to trade back to get him.
Smith is a very interesting player and right up Trent Baalke's wheelhouse because his injuries will probably prevent him from playing at all in 2016. That's perfect for Baalke, who might be able to nab Smith late on the second day of the draft.
Other than Ragland or a can't-miss talent like Jack, I don't think there are any players at the position that the 49ers should consider later in the first round. Guys like Brothers, Brown and Forrest are all interesting to me, but they'd all need to come in the late second round or later. For now, inside linebacker may be a luxury the 49ers can't afford to address early on in the draft, and someone like Wilhoite might just have to do for another season.