The inside linebacker position will have stability for the longterm on the San Francisco 49ers with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis together under contract for three more seasons. However, the short term problem will be who takes Bowman's spot for the start of 2014?
The All-Pro linebacker suffered a torn ACL during the NFC Championship game in the fourth quarter after making a tackle. San Francisco will need an answer on who takes over as Bowman will rehab after his surgery yesterday.
Under Contract for 2014: NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Nick Moody, Darius Fleming
Exclusive Right Free Agent: Michael Wilhoite
Here is a rundown of the reserve linebackers on the depth chart behind Bowman and Willis:
Nick Moody: Moody was a sixth-round draft pick in 2013 who played in Week 1 before injuring his hand and being placed on the injured reserve/designated for return list. He appeared in four regular season games and all three playoff games where he was mostly on special teams. In training camp last year, Moody received a small amount of reps in his rookie season at the inside linebacker position. The 49ers expect him to be a core special teams player for the time being.
Darius Fleming: Fleming is one of three players remaining from the 49ers 2012 draft class. He was a fifth round pick out of Notre Dame who tore his ACL during OTAs in his rookie season. The inside linebacker tore his ACL again during training camp while being a gunner on kickoff returns. Little is known about Fleming other than the fact he can play both inside and outside linebacker as he should compete in 2014.
Michael Wilhoite: The 49ers should bring back Wilhoite as he is the only player under contract with notable experience behind Willis and Bowman. He started in two games when Willis went down with a groin injury in Week 3. Wilhoite filled in admirably in Week 4 and Week 5 most notably where he had 13 tackles against the Houston Texans.
In 2012, Wilhoite was a special teams player who was promoted from the practice squad. Jim Harbaugh praised his ability to play on defense for one snap and still do his job on kickoffs and punts. Assuming Wilhoite is re-signed, he would be the leading candidate to fill in for Bowman.
2014 Draft Pick or Free agent:
The 49ers linebacker position is mostly made up of outside linebackers on the roster. An interior linebacker will be needed one way or another to provide competition and experience. The three reserve inside linebackers have a combined two starts at the NFL level. There should be one free agent signing as well as one late round pick on an inside linebacker to develop.