When the 49ers open the 2014 season, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is unlikely to be in the lineup.
Bowman, arguably the team’s finest defensive player, still has a long road of rehab ahead after surgery for torn knee ligaments suffered in the NFC Championship Game.
“Realistically, halfway through the season, something like that,” said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, when asked at the NFL Combine this past week about when Bowman might be back.
While Harbaugh said he doesn’t want to rule out Bowman completely – “He’s a supreme athlete, a world-class athlete … I wouldn’t count him out of anything” – the Niners will more than likely need a player or players to fill Bowman’s role until his return.
On Thursday, ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson, who covers the 49ers, noted that general manager Trent Baalke said recently that the team might bring in some new talent to fill in for Bowman. Right now, the 49ers most likely to play the position in Bowman’s absence are Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody.
Williamson reported that some affordable free agents who’ve played in a 3-4 defensive scheme include Akeem Jordan of the Chiefs and Dan Connor of the Panthers. Both could be plugged into the hole at inside linebacker alongside Patrick Willis.
Yet even though the 49ers are reported to be about $15 million under the salary cap, is it really vital that the team spend some of that money on an eight-game rental? With so many other spending priorities – safety Donte Whitner, kicker Phil Dawson and possible new contracts for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, guard Mike Iupati and linebacker Aldon Smith – the Niners might be better served to go with Wilhoite and back him up with Moody and Dan Skuta (who played outside linebacker last season but has played inside linebacker in his NFL career).
Wilhoite, after all, played well last season in backing up both Willis and Bowman. He played in 16 games and had 34 tackles, and the 49ers always have liked the work ethic and hard-nosed play of the second-year player from little Washburn. Skuta also played very well when he and rookie Corey Lemonier filled in for Aldon Smith for several games in 2013.
Wilhoite, 27, started two games when Willis was injured and had 20 tackles combined in those games, both victories.
While it makes sense to perhaps bring in another free agent or rookie to throw into the mix during training camp just to sharpen competition, it doesn’t really make sense to spend any significant money on a moderate-cost free agent, who’ll spend most of his time on the bench or on special teams over the second half of the season.
Wilhoite, in fact, is eager to step up into a greater role if the 49ers need him. And he expects that he’ll have to battle for the starting spot in Bowman’s absence.
“On a team like this, it’s like I tell everybody, it’s not easy being great,” he told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle recently. “It’s not relaxing, it’s not comforting, it’s not easy work. In order to be great, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be stressful. And there’s going to be competition.”
And to date, at least, Wilhoite – an undrafted free agent who’s had to fight for a job in professional football – has been up to every challenge. For a half a season, it seems Wilhoite has proven he can be very effective.