There are a couple of things we know about the San Francisco 49ers in 2016. We know that NaVorro Bowman will once again be one of the top IDP linebackers after leading the NFL in tackles in 2015. We also know that there should be tackle opportunities galore for the San Francisco defense — partly because of a lack of talent at the offensive skill positions and partly because that lack of talent coupled with Chip Kelly’s frenetic offensive scheme is going to result in a lot of quick three-and-outs.
What we don’t know for sure, however, is who will start next to Bowman at inside linebacker. Last year that spot was manned by Michael Wilhoite, who racked up over seven total tackles per game. But Wilhoite faces competition this year from Gerald Hodges, who the Niners acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings a year ago.
Hodges manned that spot down the stretch last year after Wilhoite got hurt, tallying 39 stops over the season’s last four games. And according to Chris Biderman of USA Today, it’s the 25-year-old Hodges who has the edge to open the 2016 campaign where he ended the 2015 one.
“Gerald Hodges, whom the 49ers traded for last season,” Biderman wrote, “is the early favorite. Michael Wilhoite is the experienced and dependable option behind Hodges, although he lacks the same physical upside. Ray-Ray Armstrong is the unlikely wild card whose name was thrown into the mix by O’Neil during a press conference in the spring.”
He then went on to add that a three-down role could be in the offing for whoever wins the spot. “All three have experience at safety in college,” he said, “giving them coverage skills opposite Bowman, who struggled with that part of his game last season while working through constant knee pain. It’s clear the 49ers are hoping Bowman’s sidekick has the maneuverability to make up for what he lacked defending the pass.”
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News agrees that Hodges is the favorite to start opposite Bowman. “This will be touted as a three-man race between Hodges, Wilhoite and Armstrong,” Inman said. “In reality, this should be Hodges’ job to lose, with no disrespect to Wilhoite’s hard-working service the past two seasons. Acquired via trade last season with the Vikings, Hodges brings energy and athleticism, and he started the final four games in place of an injured Wilhoite.”
For his part, Hodges told Taylor Price of the team’s website that he’s been learning as much as he can from Bowman. “It’s been amazing to have a chance to be around him and see how he works. See how he became great,” said Hodges. “I see the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he commands the defense. He has the stature that, ‘I’m the captain of this defense and this is how it’s going to be.’ That’s what I study the most.”
The player grades at Pro Football Focus would also appear to give Hodges an edge here. Granted, none of the team’s inside linebackers (Bowman included) received positive grades or finished among the top 20 inside linebackers. But Hodges’ grade of 28th at the position in just under 400 snaps was substantially better than Wilhoite, who barely snuck inside the top 50. And that grade was better in every respect — against the run, in coverage — you name it.
Let’s just put the cards on the table. Hodges is an athletic young linebacker still working out the kinks in his game. Wilhoite is a 29-year-old replacement-level talent the team nearly didn’t bring back. Assuming he can stay healthy, the youngster should open the season as a three-down starter next to Bowman.
That should be music to the ears of IDP drafters. A year ago, no team in the National Football League was on the field for more defensive snaps than the Philadelphia Eagles — coached by one Chip Kelly. And that was an Eagles team with substantially better offensive skill position talent than the 49ers have. Yes, Bowman may be the main beneficiary of all those snaps (A big reason why he’s my No. 1 fantasy linebacker in redraft IDP leagues this year), but there’s going to be plenty of tackle opportunities to go around — especially with opponents keying on Bowman, who is easily the team’s best defensive player.
Yes, it’s possible that Wilhoite might beat out Hodges for the job. But right now Hodges isn’t even being drafted in many IDP leagues, and if he is it’s very, very late. In the most recent Getting Defensive mock at My Fantasy League, over 75 linebackers were taken. Hodges wasn’t one of them.
That’s nuts. And I participated in that draft, so I’m knocking myself as much as anyone. Even with the uncertainty around Hodges right now he’s worth a late dart throw. It could be argued more so than players like Sam Barrington of the Green Bay Packers, Chris Kirksey of the Cleveland Browns and Kelvin Sheppard of the New York Giants — all of whom were taken in that draft.
From Week 14 on last year, Hodges was a top 15 fantasy linebacker in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring. If that sort of upside doesn’t rate a no-risk investment late in drafts in your mind, then Hodges isn’t the one who’s the sleeper.
You are — asleep at the wheel.