Bowman’s replacement is actually quite easy to find—it looks like it will be Patrick Willis sliding over to take over Bowman’s “Jack” linebacker position. While the two inside linebacker positions are similar, there are a couple of differences.
"You just tend to be a little more in the mix in terms of the (opponents') offensive strength. I think that's probably the biggest difference,” Willis says about moving over to Bowman’s position, per Daniel Brown via the Contra Costa Times.
Before Bowman’s arrival in 2010, that was essentially Willis’ role on defense anyway—while he plays a more traditional “Mike,” or middle linebacker, position at present, he was used more in coverage under former defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
It’s shades of difference rather than anything majorly significant, and Willis should be able to make the slight adjustments just fine until Bowman returns. The question, then, is who comes in and plays Willis’ Mike position—the more traditional middle linebacker spot?
There are three leading candidates for the role at present.
The player currently lining up across from Willis in early OTAs is Michael Wilhoite, the one veteran on the roster. Wilhoite started the two games last season that Willis missed with an injury, and he wasn’t too bad.
Wilhoite ended up with a negative grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but that was due solely to the Week 3 matchup against Indianapolis. Wilhoite was pressed into action after Willis’ injury and looked unprepared. The 49ers also generally had an off-game that week, watching as Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson teamed up to run for 130 yards on 32 carries.
In the two games he started, Wilhoite looked significantly better. Against Houston, he racked up 11 tackles, including four defensive stops, while only missing one tackle himself. He obviously doesn’t hold a candle to Willis or Bowman, but he was a perfectly adequate backup.
Wilhoite’s been mostly a contributor on special teams in his time in San Francisco, thanks to the difficulty of cracking the starting lineup. An undrafted free agent out of Washburn, he’s worked his way up from the USFL through the practice squad into a key reserve role, and that sort of work ethic and dedication means a lot. He is not an elite physical talent, though. Experience is his biggest asset in the race to earn snaps.
In the third round of the draft, the 49ers drafted Chris Borland out of Wisconsin. He’s the highest picked of the three players really vying for that inside linebacking slot, so in terms of sheer potential, he may have the inside track.
Borland is the defending Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the FWAA’s first-team All-American. He was a consistent producer at the college level, with three straight seasons with 100 or more tackles. He has great hustle and plays with a huge motor.
At only 5’11”, and with less than 30” arms, Borland’s not quite the physical specimen you’d want in an ideal linebacker. Because he lacks length, he can sometimes get engulfed by opposing blockers—he lacks the leverage needed to fight his way out at times.
Borland actually has a better chance at replacing Willis than Bowman, in my opinion. Borland’s a good four inches shorter than your average tight end, but it looks like the majority of the pass coverage will be handled by Willis. Borland’s an excellent run-stopper, with sideline-to-sideline coverage abilities. If Borland is allowed to focus on that aspect of his game, rather than covering the Jimmy Grahams of the world, he could be a starter immediately.
The most intriguing undrafted free agent the 49ers signed this offseason is Shayne Skov out of Stanford. Skov was predicted as a third-round pick by CBS Sports, yet he went through all three days of the NFL draft without his name being called.
Skov has the ideal size that Borland lacks. At 6’2”, 245 pounds, Skov’s right in the wheelhouse of ideal linebacker characteristics. The third-team All-American has great instincts and play-recognition skills. He’s an explosive tackler, too, and probably has his best chance of a future home in the NFL on special teams.
Like Borland, Skov’s odds of seeing the field increases with Willis handling most of the pass coverage abilities. Skov doesn’t have great foot speed, meaning NFL-caliber backs and tight ends might expose him in pass coverage. His arms aren’t that much longer than Borland’s, either, at only 30.625”.
One reason Skov might have dropped in the draft was due to an ACL injury, which kept him from working out at the combine and limited his ability to plant and turn. If he’s fully recovered, he’s a natural leader who will go full-throttle and make plays.
Leader in the Clubhouse
Pay close attention to the second and third preseason games, against Denver and San Diego. The playing time in those matches will give us the best idea of how the battle at the inside linebacker position is going.
Wilhoite’s experience makes him the clear favorite at the moment, but I think by the end of training camp, Borland will have a claim to the spot as well. Expect the 49ers to rotate them in and out, similar to how Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta took shifts when Aldon Smith missed time last season.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.