Over the next few weeks, I'll take a position-by-position look at the 49ers roster with an eye on the upcoming season and beyond. Today we examine the situation at inside linebacker.
Signed for 2014: NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Nick Moody, Darius Fleming.
Pending free agents: Michael Wilhoite (exclusive rights free agent)
Outlook: The 49ers expect Bowman to make a full recovery from his recent MCL/ACL tear, and the procedure has been perfected to the point where nearly 80 percent of players return to the field. But it's certainly not foolproof as recent ACL patients like Fleming, Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham can attest. Fleming and Williams both tore their left ACL in 2012 and suffered the same injury to the same knee a year later. Manningham tore his ACL in December of 2012. And while he didn't re-tear the ligament, it was clear he was not 100 percent recovered from the original injury and was placed on injured reserve last month.
All of which suggests the 49ers will take their time with Bowman. Could he be back in time for the start of the 2014 season? He hasn't had surgery yet and might not for a couple of more weeks. The fastest he could expect to return is six months, which would be around Week 1 of the preseason. However, it's difficult to believe the 49ers would rush him back onto the field in that span. A more likely scenario has Bowman going on the physically-unable-to-perform list - like Michael Crabtree did in 2013 - and then coming off when team doctors are certain the knee is strong.
Who would start opposite Willis in that scenario? Perhaps the 49ers' best offseason competition - the team's top training-camp battle -- will be between Wilhoite, who stepped in for Willis this past year, and Moody, a sixth-round pick in April. Wilhoite is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning that the 49ers will be able to bring him back on an inexpensive one-year deal (If they don't sign him to a longer one). Outside linebacker Dan Skuta also has experience as an inside linebacker while former 49er Larry Grant is available as a free agent.
Youth Watch: The 49ers would be ecstatic if Moody, who was either injured or inactive for all but four games his rookie season, seizes any opportunity Bowman's injury creates. He is at least cut from the same physical mold as Bowman and Willis in standing 6-1, and weighing about 240 pounds. Moody ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at the combine last year; Bowman ran a 4.7 in 2010. (Willis ran a 4.51-second 40 in 2007). What Moody doesn't have is the others' college production having moved from safety to linebacker at Florida State before his senior season.
Youth Watch II: The 49ers moved Fleming, a fifth-round pick in 2012, from outside to inside linebacker last offseason prior to his injury. He's been rehabilitating in Chicago and is at about the same stage as another ACL patient, cornerback Chris Culliver: running but not yet cutting on the knee. Fleming spent the season on injured reserve and is signed through 2015.
Bottom line: Willis suffered hand, groin and thumb injuries in 2013 and turned 29 last week while Bowman must come back from a serious knee injury. Suddenly, the 49ers' most stable position has question marks, and the team must find younger but worthy alternatives. Don't be surprised if the 49ers use a draft pick at this spot.
Monday's analysis: defensive line.
- Matt Barrows