After playing his first two-plus years with the Minnesota Vikings, linebacker Gerald Hodges was traded to the 49ers early in the 2015 season. Then, when Michael Wilhoite was injured late in the year, Hodges stepped in as a starter at inside linebacker for the final four games.
In those games, he was in on 39 tackles, including five for loss.
Now, as the 49ers work their way through organized team activities and toward the full-roster spring minicamp and training camp in July, Hodges’ late season audition has earned him a spot in a three-way competition to be a starter at inside linebacker alongside NaVorro Bowman.
“It’s been a blessing to come and compete with the talent we have here,” Hodges told Bay Area reporters at OTAs this past week. “We’re getting each other better. It’s been great. Everyone is competing. It’s all about evaluation right now. It’s early in the offseason, but when it comes down to it, the best people are gong to be on the field.”
New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said Hodges, Wilhoite and Ray-Ray Armstrong are in a three-way competition for the starting job.
Hodges, 25, says this is an important time for him to make his case. The former Penn State standout, who is 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds, started seven games for the Vikings in 2014, his second pro season, and was in on 65 tackles with an interception for a touchdown, seven passes defensed and a half-sack.
“It’s not just building a chemistry with NaVorro, but with the front four and the guys behind you,” Hodges told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “You want chemistry with the whole defense, not just the guy who you’re playing beside.”
In that case, too, this spring is important for Armstrong – a former Raider who was cut in 2015 – and Wilhoite, who started all of 2014 and most of 2015. Armstrong was a safety in college at Miami and has good mobility and coverage skills. Wilhoite, however, has the experience.
It could be a battle that doesn’t end until late in summer camp.
“We probably won’t know, given the nature of that position, who’s going to win it until we put the pads on,” O’Neil told the media. “But I’m very comfortable with any one of those guys and if all three of them deserve to play, then they will all play.”