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Locks: Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, Aaron Lynch (6)
Making the Roster: Michael Wilhoite, Shayne Skov (2)
Cut: Nick Moody, Morgan Breslin
Physically Unable to Perform: NaVorro Bowman
Possible Suspension: Aldon Smith
Alright, raise your hand if you jumped straight to this slide when you noticed neither Bowman nor Smith listed on the 53-man roster. We’ll deal with those two cases first.
Bowman has almost no chance of being ready for opening day. While the All-Pro inside linebacker is recovering well from his knee injury, he’ll still likely miss at least the first half of the season. Thus, he won’t count for a spot on the initial 53-man roster.
Aldon Smith’s exclusion is more of an educated guess. Smith has had a nightmare of an offseason. He not only is dealing with the aftermath of his DUI and weapons possession charges, but also was involved in an alleged bomb threat incident at LAX.
It looked bad enough that there were rumors that the 49ers would not exercise their option to extend Smith’s contract, and that the NFL could suspend him, possibly for the entire 2014 season.
Things have calmed down since then, and the doomsday scenario of felony terrorism charges seem to have passed, but it’s still entirely within the realm of possibility that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could lay down disciplinary penalties on Smith. I think we’re talking more a two-to-four game suspension than a season-long bomb, but that would still keep Smith off the initial 53-man roster.
That still leaves the 49ers with two of their pro bowl linebackers as locks to make the squad. Patrick Willis is still arguably the best middle linebacker in football, and most teams would love their worst starting linebacker to be as good as Ahmad Brooks.
Two more locks go to a pair of talented outside linebackers who showed off impressive pass-rushing skills in limited time last season, Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier. Both saw a significant number of snaps while Aldon Smith was in rehab last season, and both performed very well in his absence.
While the pair recorded only one sack, they combined for 34 quarterback hurries. Either of them could take over when and if Smith misses significant time in 2014.
There are two rookies that I would consider locks. Chris Borland is undersized for an NFL linebacker, but his play at Wisconsin was phenomenal. He’ll battle for snaps until Bowman returns from injury. Fifth-round selection Aaron Lynch is more of a question mark due concerns about his effort and commitment to football, but if you assume Smith will miss time, Lynch slides in nicely to add depth at the position. He’ll probably be inactive most of the season, but I think he makes the roster.
Finally, you have a battle for the last two interior linebacking slots. I think Michael Wilhoite is the favorite for one of them. He was a key contributor on special teams and started two games last season when Patrick Willis went down with an injury. He’ll battle Borland to replace Bowman.
I’m going to go a bit out on a limb and give the last spot to undrafted free agent Shayne Skov, who will beat out Nick Moody for a roster slot. It’s a little surprising the former Standford Cardinal standout didn’t get drafted; CBS had him as a third- or fourth-round selection.
He’ll have a huge chip on his shoulder, which further fuel an already-fierce playing style. The full-throttle, take-no-prisoners linebacker has playmaking potential, despite not possessing elite athleticism. I think he has a future in the NFL, despite going undrafted.
Moody’s a contributor on special teams himself, but I see no reason Skov couldn’t take over that role. Moody looks like the odd man out.