The 49ers will head into training camp later this month knowing they won’t have standout inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Bowman, who suffered a knee injury during the NFC Championship Game in January against the Seahawks, isn’t expected to play until midseason at the earliest.
So during training camp and the exhibition games, San Francisco’s coaching staff will have to decide who can best step into his spot.
That question, in fact, tops this week’s list of “top 10 position battles” for the team, as projected by Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle. While there certainly are other interesting duels – such as Marcus Martin vs. Daniel Kilgore at center, Jimmie Ward vs. Perrish Cox in the secondary and Carlos Hyde vs. Marcus Lattimore at running back (behind Frank Gore) – Lynch points to the competition between veteran Michael Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland at inside linebacker as the No. 1 battle.
“The right to replace NaVorro Bowman will be hotly contested,” wrote Lynch. “Wilhoite is the faster, more knowledgeable and more athletic player. Borland is more instinctive. Both are diligent students of the game, and their camp-long duel will be reason alone to watch exhibition games.”
It will be tough for Borland to pass Wilhoite, a former undrafted free agent from Division II Washburn Univeristy who has played very well in two seasons with the 49ers as a backup linebacker and special teamer.
In two starts last season when Patrick Willis was injured, Wilhoite played very well. He had 20 tackles and the 49ers defense allowed just one TD in two victories. Then in the NFC Championship Game, it was Wilhoite who filled in for Bowman.
The fact the 49ers drafted Borland was just another signal to Wilhoite that there’s no guarantee he’ll get Bowman’s spot.
“I’m just going out there every day and staying hungry and driven,” Wilhoite told the Chronicle’s Eric Branch after the draft. “I think that’s the mindset I’ve had from the beginning and that’s the mindset I’ll keep. Just to keep working hard.”
Borland, taken in the third round from Wisconsin, doesn’t have size or speed, yet just seems to make plays. He was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and had 50 tackles for loss and forced a conference-record 15 fumbles during his Badgers career.
During the 49ers’ recent organized team activities (OTAs) and full-roster minicamp, Borland reportedly impressed his coaches and teammates by playing well in pass coverage and making smart decisions. But he knows Wilhoite is the front-runner for the starting job in Bowman’s absence.
“I think it’s his spot right now, but I’m going to fight for it,” Borland told the Wisconsin State Journal this week. “That’s the story of the NFL. Everyone fights to get on top and once you’re there, you fight to stay there. Hopefully I can earn that position. I’ll do everything in my power, but you can’t change anything you’ve ever done. Just stick to the formula and hope it works out.”
Niners GM Trent Baalke has said he loves Borland’s make-up as a football player, and cited his production at Wisconsin.
But when it comes to competing with Wilhoite in training camp, Borland knows that what he does every day in practice and in exhibition games is what will count. And that’s the way it should be.
“Your college career doesn’t mean anything, just like when you started college from high school, it didn’t mean anything," he said. "I’m confident, I’m ready, I’m excited. I just have to continue to work.”