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 you get the idea.
Michael Wilhoite has had an interesting career with the San Francisco 49ers. Originally brought in to be a special teams player, Wilhoite earned a bigger role when Patrick Willis went down with an injury a couple seasons back. In limited time, Wilhoite looked great, better than anybody could have hoped for out of a backup.
The following season, he got some playing time when NaVorro Bowman was out, and again looked great. He didn’t look like Bowman or Willis, but he looked like a starting inside linebacker. Wilhoite showed quickness that nobody expected of him, took angles like a true veteran and generally did a good job of keeping the play in front of him.
But the more playing time Wilhoite got, the more he started to slow down. It’s like he only had so much in the tank to deliver at a high level, because his angles got less sharp, his speed was diminished and he made more than his share of mistakes. When Willis left the team, Wilhoite became a full-time starter and he stopped looking the part.
It’s unclear why he regressed in the way he did. Many here have been calling for him to be benched for some time, though I wasn’t on this train until recently. I saw how well Wilhoite played before, and I have to wonder if he simply didn’t like Jim Tomsula and Eric Mangini’s defense, or what the problem was.
In 49 career games with the 49ers, Wilhoite has 213 combined tackles, three interceptions and a forced fumble. He put up 87 and 85 tackles over the last two years and is generally an average inside linebacker next to Bowman. But the 49ers’ defense, at least in recent years, has relied heavily on an elite pairing on the inside and Wilhoite isn’t that anymore.
Whether or not he’ll be a good fit under Chip Kelly and the new coaching staff is also in question. But for now, we know that Wilhoite isn’t guaranteed to be the starter. Who will play alongside Bowman comes down to a battle between Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong.
Hodges is a weird player. He looked every bit like a future starter when the 49ers brought him in, but he never found his way onto the field. He’s been taking first-team reps throughout the offseason, but some of those also went to Wilhoite. I don’t think Armstrong is actually in the discussion, personally, but anything is possible.
Why he might improve
Wilhoite started to regress in Jim Harbaugh’s final season at the helm of the team, but he really went downhill when Tomsula and Mangini took over. He didn’t seem like he fit at all, and with a new defensive coaching staff and another chance, anything is possible. He’s 29 years old, which makes him a little past the mid-way point of an inside linebacker’s normal career. There is room for improvement, but it all depends on him winning the starting job.
Why he might regress
Because we saw Wilhoite crack more and more the longer he saw the field, the thought that he simply doesn’t have what it takes to be a starter is not an irrational one. He had plenty of tackles last year, but the 49ers defense was on the field more than usual. He had plenty of tackles the year before, but he started missing assignments more regularly. Couple that with a new playbook, Hodges waiting in the wings and whatever else you want to pile on, and regression isn’t exactly unlikely.
Odds of making the roster
Despite an ankle injury, lackluster play and a potential replacement in Hodges on the roster, the 49ers re-signed Wilhoite to a one-year contract this offseason. My guess is that he’s a shoe-in for the 53-man roster, whether he is the starter or a backup. The 49ers need plenty of inside linebackers and there’s no reason to assume that Wilhoite won’t be one of them as far as I can tell.