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49ers training camp position battle preview: Inside linebacker

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The San Francisco 49ers are trying to figure out who to start at inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman. We take a look at where things stand in that position competition heading into training camp.

The San Francisco 49ers start training camp later next week, which means we’ll start to get some resolution on who will make the roster, and how the starting lineup will look come Week 1. As we come down this final stretch, I thought we’d go through some of the notable position competitions facing the 49ers in training camp. We’re going to focus primarily on starters, but we might mix in some pertinent reserve roles from time-to-time. We started things off with the right tackle position, and today we move on to the inside linebacker starting next to NaVorro Bowman.

The incumbent(s): Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges

Once again, we have two incumbents. Alex Smith showed you could lose your starting job because of injury, but for purposes of this competition, we’ll go against that. In 2015, Wilhoite was the starting inside linebacker next to NaVorro Bowman for 12 weeks. However, he suffered a high ankle sprain, and was replaced by Gerald Hodges for the final four games.

The challengers: Ray-Ray Armstrong

The 49ers claimed Armstrong off waivers last fall, and he played on special teams the final five weeks of the season. During the offseason workout program, defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil announced that Armstrong, Wilhoite and Hodges were going to split reps. Armstrong seems likely to end up as the odd man out, focusing on special teams, but maybe he surprises us in August.

Leader in the clubhouse: Nobody

The media reported that the three linebackers did in fact split snaps fairly evenly during open practices. There’s a good chance the coaching staff has a front-runner heading into training camp, but we don’t know where it stands yet.

Contract implications: None. Wilhoite, Hodges, and Armstrong are all on track to be unrestricted free agents after this season.

Wild card: Shayne Skov and Nick Bellore have focused on special teams in their careers, but likely will get some ILB time during preseason games. The 49ers also signed linebacker Wynton McManis as an undrafted free agent. Odds are pretty slim any of those three shake things up.

Way too early prediction: I’m going to say Gerald Hodges wins the job. Wilhoite got the bulk of the work last season, but Hodges now has a full offseason with the team. And both are working in a new defense, so they’re on fairly even ground heading into training camp. I realize draft pedigree does not mean anything at this point in their careers, but I think Hodges has the greater ceiling. Given the rebuilding process the 49ers are going through, I’d rather see the upside guy getting the starting opportunities.