As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to open the season without their reigning All-Pro ILB NaVorro Bowman it will be a time in which others will need to step up. A position that is filled with talent across the board, the question remains who will win the starting spot opposite of ILB Patrick Willis? A camp battle that will likely come down to three players including ILB Michael Wilhoite, ILB Nick Moody and rookie third-round pick (No. 77) ILB Chris Borland, it is Wilhoite who in my eyes has the inside track.
Throughout OTAs and voluntary workouts, it has been Wilhoite who has been receiving first-team snaps. And while Moody looks more in-sync from a year ago, the trust the 49ers coaching staff has in Wilhoite should be enough in the end to earn the starting spot.
Wilhoite started two games last season and had a ILB Larry Grant like presence as he recorded 20 tackles including a team-high 13 against the Houston Texans. Aside from Wilhoite’s production, it’s his football savvy and experience that makes him more than a plug-and-play player as he should have a great season while playing out his contract year.
However, Wilhoite will have to earn the spot outright as Moody is well on his tail. The second-year special-teams standout out of Florida State, Moody will be looking to set the mood as he tries to wow the coaching staff in year two. A quick twitched athlete with the hitting ability to match, it will be interesting to see if Moody can make a strong push for the starting spot. In four games last season, Moody finished with three special teams tackles. And while his pass-coverage skill set has been a problem in the past, Moody looks more fluid this time around.
And if Moody slips and Borland shines, it may be a camp battle to the very end. Borland has already earned high praise from Harbaugh as he alluded to Borland leading the team in both pass break-ups and interceptions throughout the off-season program. A true student of the game with the high football IQ to match, it’s Borland’s cerebral approach that may force the 49ers coaching staff to give him a strong look as camp comes to an end. Wilhoite who understands the situation said, “I think the biggest thing for me is to keep my mind on the grind and keep working hard. I know there are guys nipping on my heels, so I have to keep going full-speed and make sure I can solidify myself first before I can feel like I’m going to be the starter.”
With the 49ers having great depth, it will be fun to see which player emerges as the starting “Jack” linebacker next to Willis. A role that requires strength to hold the point of attack while allowing the “Mike” to free-lance to the ball freely, it should make for the best camp battle for the 49ers in 2014.