We'll continue our look at the San Francisco 49ers and their various positional units today with a look at the inside linebackers. Effectively, the 49ers had three inside linebackers, as the other two on the roster were core special teamers, more than anything. Needless to say, the 49ers are set in this regard moving forward, though they may need another backup, as last year's option may be in line for a bigger contract and a bigger role elsewhere. Let's get to it.
Patrick Willis is, well, Patrick Willis, ya know? Great linebackers nowadays should always have the caveat "Well, they're no Patrick Willis, but ..." any time you're grading them out. Willis is just so good at everything on the football field, and is without a doubt the best inside linebacker in the NFL today. He's incredibly strong, fast enough to catch most players in the league and when he's not, will take the smartest angles of any other player to cover the distance. He's a hard-hitting tackler and he's great in coverage, suffering his only lapses in that regard when he was beaten by Jimmy Graham going for a jump ball when the 49ers played the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. A+
NaVorro Bowman can be mistaken for Patrick Willis at times, which is really enough to give him a very solid grade. After looking abysmal in his limited time his rookie season, Bowman was thrust into the starting role as Takeo Spikes left for free agency, and he performed better than most figured he could this quickly. He was a hard-hitter, which wasn't expected, and showed he potentially had better range than Willis. His angles weren't quite as refined, but there were multiple folks saying that they could't tell if it was Willis or Bowman that made a certain tackle. Not only do the 49ers have the best group of inside linebackers, they have the No. 1 and No. 2 inside linebackers in the league. A+
Larry Grant surprised most people, but there were plenty who also knew that he could be great if given some playing time. It just so happens that Willis had to miss a few games, so Grant was pressed into action. There was almost no difference for the first couple games - Grant played out of his mind. He knocked down multiple passes and was mauling running backs in the backfield. He's not quite as fast as a lot of inside linebackers, but he's a sure tackler. As he got more and more time, he started making mistakes and it was clear he needed more time to really get into a groove, but isn't that what you want out of a backup? A guy who can come in and just play incredibly well? Unfortunately, it likely means Grant will get a good offer to potentially start somewhere else. Grading him relative to a backup. A-
Blake Costanzo was a special teamer and nothing else, but he was possibly the best special teamer the 49ers have had in a very long time, which is saying something given some of the players they've had in recent years. He's fast, strong, a sure tackler and very smart - he could probably be a decent backup at inside linebacker if it all came down to it. But he's not going to get a grade as an inside linebacker.
Tavares Gooden did not see the field much on defense, but was a core special teamer. He got the hang of things in that regard as the season went on, but again, did not factor into things as an inside linebacker. No grade.