49ers position-by-position breakdown: Inside linebackers

Matt Maiocco's 49ers Breakdown: Linebackers

49ers position-by-position breakdown: Inside linebackers
July 21, 2013, 3:15 pm
Share This Post

Inside linebacker Patrick Willis had 88 total tackles and 120 combined in the 2012 season. (USA TODAY IMAGES)

Editor's note: Insider Matt Maiocco will be providing position-by-position breakdowns each day leading up to 49ers training camp. The rookies reported Friday, with the veterans scheduled to follow on Wednesday. Today, Matt focuses on the inside linebackers.

Who they have: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, Darius Fleming, Nate Stupar

Who they lost: Larry Grant, Tavares Gooden

Looking back: The 49ers carried four inside linebackers to open the season and added a fifth, Wilhoite, to help on special teams late in the year. Willis and Bowman, in their second year together, had All-Pro seasons. Bowman led the 49ers in tackles for the second consecutive season after Willis held that distinction in each of his first four NFL seasons. Simply put, there is no better pair of inside linebackers in the league. Both men have sideline-to-sideline range and are outstanding tacklers. Willis is the 49ers' best linebacker in coverage and typically draws the assignment of covering the opposition's top tight end.

Overall outlook: Willis and Bowman are about the least of the 49ers' concerns on defense. Most teams are lucky to have one reliable inside linebacker. The 49ers have invested a healthy amount of their salary cap on two inside linebackers who easily form the best tandem in the NFL. Wilhoite did very well on special teams after getting his promotion from the practice squad with five games remaining in the regular season. Moody was a sixth-round draft pick because of his prowess on special teams. Fleming, who opens camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a knee injury, was moved from outside linebacker during the offseason program.

[RELATED: 49ers Moody expects to contribute immediately]

Camp competition: While special teams will be a big factor in how many inside linebackers the 49ers retain on their 53-man roster, the team will be looking for one of the players to step up as a primary backup to Willis and Bowman. That competition is wide open as camp opens. The 49ers also have the option of moving Dan Skuta back to inside linebacker to enter the competition. Grant, who will serve a four-game suspension to open the season for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and Gooden remain unsigned.