Chris Borland is ready to go.
The former Wisconsin linebacker, a third-round draft pick of the 49ers earlier this month, signed a four-year deal with San Francisco Thursday and will begin his pro career Friday with the start of the team’s three-day rookie minicamp.
It’s expected that Borland will compete with veteran Michael Wilhoite to fill NaVorro Bowman’s spot at inside linebacker the first half of 2014 while Bowman rehabs after knee surgery.
It seems a long shot that Borland would beat out Wilhoite for the spot as a rookie, given that Wilhoite has played well during his time with the 49ers filling in for Patrick Willis and Bowman.
And Borland, although a first-team All-American and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, enters the NFL with little fanfare. In pure athletic terms, Borland is lacking. He’s short (5-11½), slow (a 4.83 40-yard dash) and had the second-shortest arms of any linebacker at the NFL Combine.
Yet Borland has been a playmaker, and that’s why 49ers GM Trent Baalke couldn’t resist drafting him.
“We just love the makeup,” Baalke told reporters. “We love the player. He’s everything you’re looking for from a DNA standpoint. He loves the game. He’s a smart football player. He’s an extremely instinctive football player. He’s overcome that lack of arm length. He’s overcome that lack of speed that is being talked about. He’s just a baller.”
For the Badgers, Borland had 410 tackles – including 50 for loss – in 52 games, and forced a Big Ten-record 15 fumbles.
Yet despite his production and the love shown by Baalke – and a few other scouts and NFL personnel directors – many other pro evaluators believe Borland will be overpowered by better talent in the league now. One AFC executive told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “He may be a dinosaur at the end of the day.” Said an NFC executive: “Love the kid, love his makeup. … But this is another league. We put 340-pound guards on linebackers. … I think he’s going to struggle.”
Borland has heard all the critics, and what they say he doesn’t have. But he believes he can make it. He’s played inside and outside linebacker at Wisconsin, which has run both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes in his time at the school. He puts in film study, hard work in practice and has succeeded against physical Big Ten programs for four seasons.
“I don’t care where I get picked up,” Borland said before being taken by the 49ers. “Obviously, the sooner the better. But I’m confident I can make a team and I hope to be a contributing member of that team right away. (I don’t want to) just make a roster, but make a roster better.”