The injury to the 49ers’ NaVorro Bowman puts a big question mark over his position at inside linebacker in 2014.
It’s projected that Bowman, the 49ers’ best defensive player in 2013, may be ready to play by midseason. But until then, how do the 49ers fill his position?
It’s possible that San Francisco will use one of its 11 draft picks to take an inside linebacker. There are plenty to choose from.
The top inside linebackers in the draft – C.J. Mosley of Alabama, Yawin Smallwood of Connecticut and Chris Borland of Wisconsin – will likely be long gone by the time the 49ers turn their attention to the position. With priorities at cornerback and wide receiver, it’s possible San Francisco could use three of its six picks among the top 100 on those positions.
Plus, once Bowman returns, he and Patrick Willis give the 49es the best pair of inside linebackers in the league, so is the position really a long-term priority? It wouldn’t seem to be.
So, the 49ers might eventually take an inside linebacker to use in the short term and groom as a long-term backup to Willis and Bowman. If that’s the case, inside linebackers such as Brock Coyle of Montana and Avery Williamson of Kentucky might still be available in the middle to late rounds.
But the argument could be made that even without Bowman, the 49ers don’t need to use a draft pick to add depth in his absence – and certainly not a high one.
Going into this season, the 49ers have veterans Michael Whilhoite, Dan Skuta and second-year player Nick Moody
Wilhoite filled in very capably for both Bowman and Willis in 2013, and could be a fine short-term fit in Bowman’s absence for the first half of 2014.
Plus, Moody, a sixth-round choice from Florida State in the 2013 draft, has shown promise. He played well on special teams as a rookie, and the former safety – converted to linebacker for his senior season – is known as a very physical tackler at 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds.
The 49ers drafted him in part because of his willingness to play special teams and his ability to make an impact. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters that Moody is “one of the best (special teams players) we’ve seen at that in college football.”
Wilhoite, 6 feet and 240 pounds, played in all 16 games in 2013 – starting two -- and had 24 tackles. And Skuta, a veteran who can play outside, inside and special teams, has been a starter in his NFL career.
The 49ers may indeed take an inside linebacker in the mid to late rounds, but it’s unlikely that player would start ahead of Wilhoite. And, with Skuta and Moody on board, it’s possible San Francisco could decide to add a veteran free agent rather than draft a rookie. After the draft, there still should be some veterans available on the free-agent market.