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.
The San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a hole a year ago when Patrick Willis decided to retire from the NFL. His feet were causing him problems, and after a Hall of Fame-level career, he decided to call it a day. It was a crushing loss for 49ers fans, as I think most of us were excited about seeing NaVorro Bowman back next to Willis in 2015. They were the best linebacker duo in the NFL, and there really was no argument otherwise.
With Willis’s departure, Michael Wilhoite was viewed as the likely starter next to Bowman. Wilhoite had started in Bowman’s place in 2014, and then took over Willis’s spot heading into the 2015 season. The 49ers entered the 2015 season with Wilhoite, Bowman, Shayne Skov, and Nick Bellore as their only linebackers. And then in early October, they made a trade, sending center Nick Easton to the Minnesota Vikings for Gerald Hodges.
The 49ers actually faced Hodges in Week 1. I had spoken to our Vikings blog at that point about the game, and they actually mentioned Hodges in response to a question about under-the-radar players.
On defense watch out for new starting middle linebacker Gerald Hodges. He took everyone by surprise this preseason and truly earned the starting gig with his play. Like Kendricks, Hodges always seems to end up around the ball one way or another. Hodges has the potential to vastly improve a position that was largely a liability last season.
The 49ers acquired him after Week 4, and after two weeks on the inactive list, he was active the remainder of the season. In Week 13, Wilhoite suffered a high ankle sprain that cost him the rest of the season. Hodges took over the starting ILB role next to Bowman, and finished the season with 39 tackles over those four games.
I took a look back at Hodges over that final stretch of games. You could see some solid speed at times. He did a good job closing on ball-carriers on the outside. He struggled at times getting off blockers, and did not seem to have the kind of strength we have gotten used to with Bowman and Willis. That being said, he was more often than not a fairly sound tackler. He had his share of inconsistencies, but he can tackle. A full offseason learning Jim O’Neil’s defense will be a big plus for him. He had a better handle on things by the time he was in the starting lineup last year, but in-season trades can often leave players a bit wanting in terms of getting into the swing of things.
Hodges enters training camp competing with Michael Wilhoite and Ray-Ray Armstrong for the starting inside linebacker job. The three of them rotated snaps during OTAs and minicamp.
Experience: 3 accrued seasons
Weight: 236 lbs
Hodges is entering the final season of his rookie contract. His base salary and salary cap hit will be $1,671,000 after getting a boost due to the proven performance escalator. The 49ers owe no salary cap money on his prorated signing bonus because they acquired him via trade.
Why he might improve
He’s got the full offseason to build on his final four games. Everybody seems to be healthy in this competition, so there is an even starting point in terms of learning O’Neil’s offense. Wilhoite is a very capable linebacker, but he has a limited ceiling in terms of his overall speed and athleticism. Armstrong has athleticism, but is viewed as an undisciplined linebacker. That could leave Hodges somewhere in that Goldilocks zone. He’s not a huge guy, but he’s got the size to handle that ILB role. Add in that he is in a contract year, and there is potentially a little extra motivation.
Why he might regress
He might not develop the consistency that is going to be needed to take a step forward. Just because he has the draft pedigree does not mean he will turn into the necessary presence. I think there’s more of a ceiling than Wilhoite, but that doesn’t mean he reaches the ceiling. And having to learn what would essentially be his third defense in two years is not exactly ideal.
Odds of making the roster
The 49ers kept four linebackers on the roster to start last season, but eventually made the move to add Hodges. I listed Hodges as a lock alongside Wilhoite and Bowman, with Armstrong as a bubble guy. I think Hodges makes the roster, and he has a strong chance of starting when Week 1 rolls around. Both he and Wilhoite are unrestricted free agents after this season. I have a hunch Hodges secures the starting role, and ends up getting a contract extension.