This week, Elliot Harrison of NFL.com selected the NFL’s top players in the league under 25 years of age.
Over the past three seasons, certainly the league has seen an influx of terrific talent that should be around for a while. Playmakers such as Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the Raiders young linebacker Khalil Mack made Harrison’s team.
But in picking two 49ers, Harrison highlighted a question on the team that may not be answered for a while.
Eric Reid, the 49ers’ top pick in the 2013 draft, was selected, an obvious pick. Reid has been solid.
Wrote Harrison: “He has a ways to go, but through two seasons, Reid has shown a tremendous amount of upside. He is still a better player vs. the run, but is certainly not a liability in coverage and has picked off seven passes in two seasons. With Reid still just 23 – and hopefully surrounded by a healthier cast in 2015 – look for him to develop further this fall.”
The other 49er selected was linebacker Chris Borland, a rookie in 2014 from Wisconsin.
“Seemed like every week last season, we were hearing about the play of this rookie third-round pick,” wrote Harrison. “Despite starting just eight games, he recorded 108 tackles (including 12 for loss) and two interceptions, and he pounced on the ball to set up the game-winning score in New Orleans. Dude was all over the field.”
But will Dude even be on the field much in 2105?
With veteran Pro Bowl inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman both expected back in 2015, Borland right now has no position. Certainly, every team loves to have great depth, and Borland provides that.
But, given his production as a rookie, it’s hard to believe the 49ers wouldn’t like to see Borland playing full time in a 49ers uniform. Veteran Michael Wilhoite, who started every game in 2014 as a replacement for Bowman, gives the 49ers another good inside linebacker – but it was reported this week that the team is offering him up for trade.
Borland, however, is too young and too good to be traded. And, in 2015, he’ll be a bargain. According to SB Nation, Borland’s price against the team’s salary cap is just $694,000, compared to $8.4 million for Bowman and $8.3 million for Willis.
Borland doesn’t seem to be a player suited for outside linebacker in the 3-4, so his future appears to be inside.
Eventually, that may mean he could replace Willis, who is 30 and signed through 2016. But for now, Willis remains a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Unless a trade or injury opens the door for Borland, it appears one of the NFL’s best young talents will have trouble getting on the field in 2015.