NFC West: San Francisco 49ers

Hakeem Nicks to visit 49ers

March, 30, 2015
Mar 30
11:45
AM ET

The San Francisco 49ers, who are relatively light in experience at the wide receiver position, are playing host to veteran Hakeem Nicks for a free-agent visit.

Nicks is traveling Monday to Santa Clara, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson.

A six-year veteran who was the No. 29 overall pick of the 2009 draft, Nicks had 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the New York Giants in 2010 and 2011. He signed with Indianapolis last year, envisioning becoming the Colts’ No. 3 receiver behind Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton.

But Nicks, 27, struggled and fell to No. 4 on the Colts’ WR depth chart, finishing with a career-low 38 catches for a career-worst 405 yards. He did, however, have four touchdown catches. He was the fifth receiver drafted in 2009, behind Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin.

Earlier this offseason, the Niners signed receiver Torrey Smith to be their deep threat, along with Jerome Simpson. Smith, a second-rounder in the 2011 draft, 12-year veteran Anquan Boldin and Simpson, who may face a suspension to start the season, are the only receivers on the 49ers’ roster with at least six career catches.

Crabtree remains unsigned as a free agent, though Niners general manager Trent Baalke said last week at the NFL owners meetings that the 49ers’ first-round pick from 2009 was still on the table, so to speak.

Also, veteran linebacker Lance Briggs is scheduled to visit the 49ers on Monday.

ESPN NFL Nation Colts reporter Mike Wells contributed to this report.

PHOENIX -- One of the first bits of advice Jim Tomsula received upon becoming head coach of the NFL Europe's Rhein Fire in 2006 came in a letter from a fellow West Pennsylvania-bred football lifer.

Don't be the offensive coach. Don't be the defensive coach. Be the head coach.

The late Ron Lancaster, a four-time Grey Cup champion in the CFL, also offered up this nugget:

Head coaches can be meddlers, or enablers. Try to be the second one.

[+] EnlargeJim Tomsula
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesNew 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said he got used to roster upheaval while working in NFL Europe.

Tomsula looked off in the distance as he recalled the advice Wednesday morning over breakfast at the NFL owners meetings.

"It kinda stuck with me," he said.

And while Lancaster's advice at the advent of his NFL Europe head-coaching excursion gave Tomsula encouragement, it is Tomsula's real-world experiences as a head coach across the pond that give him something to lean on now in his third full month as a first-time NFL head coach.

Because while perhaps no NFL team has had as turbulent an offseason as the Niners thus far -- courtesy of retirements, free-agent defections and an arrest -- Tomsula insisted he is used to team-building. And yes, it goes back almost a decade.

"Back to my roots [as] an NFL Europe guy," he said. "New team every year. The team-building process? This is a new year, a new team. Every NFL team has changed."

Even if general manager Trent Baalke insisted back in January that the 49ers were reloading, not rebuilding. The Niners, though, have lost nine players thus far, and those nine appeared in a combined 114 games a year ago, with a combined 82 starts.

"Every NFL team has changed," Tomsula reiterated. "Obviously, ours is a little different than most years, and most teams."

The wackiness of the Niners' offseason began with former coach Jim Harbaugh and the team parting ways, and has continued with running back Frank Gore, left guard Mike Iupati, linebacker Dan Skuta and cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox leaving Santa Clara via free agency, receiver Stevie Johnson getting cut and signing elsewhere and linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland and safety Bubba Ventrone all retiring.

Plus, receiver Michael Crabtree is still out there, the Niners have had no conversations with Brandon Lloyd and defensive lineman Justin Smith is still contemplating retirement.

And while Tomsula has reached out to another former NFL Europe confidante in Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett (he was working to become a broadcaster in the developmental league at the time), there has been no correspondence or sage Lancaster-like advice to Tomsula from the man he replaced in Harbaugh.

"We didn't talk," Tomsula said. "He was up in Michigan, I was down here. And we were rolling."

PHOENIX -- While the recent retirements of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland may have thrown the San Francisco 49ers for a loop, and the Niners have only three inside linebackers under contract who have NFL experience and one of them, NaVorro Bowman, is still recuperating from a 14-month-old knee injury, their defense remains status quo.

The 49ers are remaining in a 3-4 defense, rather than flipping to a 4-3 scheme, new coach Jim Tomsula confirmed at the NFC coaches breakfast Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks
Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesIf depth issues become a concern, the 49ers may experiment by moving linebacker Ahmad Brooks to the inside this season.

Because while the Niners expect Bowman to make a full recovery, they also return Michael Wilhoite, who started 16 games a year ago, as well as Nick Moody, who started the final two games. And there are thoughts the Niners could move Ahmad Brooks inside as well as continue to scour free agency -- Erin Henderson and Lance Briggs have been linked to the Niners.

Beyond that, the defensive line, Tomsula's old stomping grounds as the team's D-line coach since 2006, should be enough of a strength to remain in a 3-4.

"The depth on the defensive line right now is as deep as we've ever had it," Tomsula said. "I'm really excited about the guys we have."

Yes, even with the very real possibility that Justin Smith might retire at any moment.

Tomsula was quick to point out that he refers to his grunts there as defensive linemen, rather than labeling them as a nose tackle or an end. He likes to say any of his players can play any position on the line.

"We cross-train everybody," Tomsula said. "That won't stop."

But for depth chart-sake, the three nose tackles are Ian Williams, Glenn Dorsey, Mike Purcell and Quinton Dial, who, Tomsula said, might boast a skill set better suited for end in a 3-4.

The ends meanwhile, are Smith, newly-signed free agent Darnell Dockett, whom Tomsula used to seek out after games to compliment him as an opponent, "out of respect," Tony Jerod-Eddie and Tank Carradine, who is still adjusting to a new position as a 3-technique in the NFL after being an outside pass-rushing end in college.

"Tank came from the backyard to a phone booth," Tomsula said. "When you're out there on the edge, you've got all that space and you're working and there's nobody outside you as a blocking threat and everything is through that vision line.

"And now you scoot down inside, whether you're a 3-technique or a 4-, you've got stuff coming from both sides. The amount of space you have to work in is a lot smaller. So just getting used to it [is a challenge]."

It is worth noting, though, that health perhaps plays the biggest key as Bowman, Dorsey and Williams all were on injured reserve last season.

PHOENIX -- While the Oakland Raiders continue their quest for a permanent home, be it in Oakland, Carson, or Parts Unknown, the door for them to jump into a 1-year-old stadium 34.3 miles down I-880 remains cracked open.

The Raiders, sharing what is undoubtedly the 49ers’ yard at red-clad Levi’s Stadium, may be beyond a last resort for the Raiders, but Niners CEO Jed York said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings the latest news of his team sharing the Santa Clara digs with another team remains status quo.

“It’s been the same answer all along,” York said. “The building has been approved for two teams. That hasn’t changed, and it’s not specific to who the team is, and it’s really out of our control.

“The Raiders, and whoever else is considering new stadium possibilities, they’re controlling their own destiny on where they want to go, and what they want to do.”

In other words, Levi’s remains an option for a team like the Raiders, albeit, a far-fetched alternative.

Niners fans, though, will be happy to know that team officials are working on improvements for those who sit on the sun-spashed east side of the stadium.

York and 49ers chief operating office Al Guido said the Niners, after consulting with the Jacksonville Jaguars -- no, the Niners will not be installing a swimming pool in the stadium -- will institute a couple of fan-friendly features for game days.

“Cool” seating benches will be installed in the concourse area of the east side while “misters” will be in the plaza. The team is also considering passing out hand-held misting fans to spectators on especially warm days.

Parking, specifically egress, a bane for so many fans in the early weeks of the stadium, is also being addressed. York and Guido said the time to exit certain lots at the stadium took as long as 1 hour, 20 minutes early in the season, but dropped to as little as 45 minutes by the end of the year. The average time to exit Candlestick Park, they said, was 90 minutes.

PHOENIX -- Sure, Patrick Willis retiring at the age of 30 stung the San Francisco 49ers a bit. But it happened before the dawn of the new league year, so the Niners were able to take a deep breath and focus on their depth at inside linebacker, with a standout rookie in Chris Borland returning for his second year.

Borland retiring less than a week later, after one season in the NFL? Yeah, that was the salt in the Willis wound, so to speak.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
AP Photo/Tony AvelarChris Borland's retirement has made inside linebacker an area of need for the 49ers.

“Pat retired early enough to at least look at the potential in free agency,” Niners general manager Trent Baalke said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “It wasn’t an urgency to anything, not that there is now, but then Chris walks away from the game and now you’ve got a whole new set of things to look at.

“And the timing of Chris’ [retirement] really wasn’t until three days into free agency, where certain options were already off the table. It certainly changed the situation when Chris walked away and made you look at the options a little bit closer.”

As it stands now, the Niners have only three inside linebackers with NFL experience under contract in Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody and NaVorro Bowman.

So while Willis' departure may have staggered the Niners, Borland’s exit changed the dynamic of their offseason, the position going from one of anticipated strength to a position of need.

Even if, as Baalke said, the Niners return a 16-game starter at JACK linebacker in Wilhoite, a former All-Pro at MIKE linebacker in Bowman, even if he is still recuperating from a 14-month-old left knee injury, and Nick Moody, who started the final two games of the season last year.

“So it’s not like the cupboard’s bare, either,” Baalke said.

Then what’s the new plan?

“I think the plan is, you look at all options available,” Baalke said. “You look at guys that are currently on the street, UFA’s, you look at the draft, where you think you can address it within the draft, and you look at potential trade options.

“Everything’s in play.”

Baalke confirmed the Niners have interest in Erin Henderson, though the two have not met. Former Chicago Bears ILB Lance Briggs is also a player of interest.

And about those reports that Wilhoite was on the trading block before Willis and Borland retired, Baalke said teams did inquire about Wilhoite, who is an exclusive-rights free agent. The conversations, though, never advanced to the compensation stage, Baalke said.

PHOENIX -- Besides their usual NFC West road games, the San Francisco 49ers will travel in to play at the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants in 2015.

And in an effort to ease travel pains, Niners CEO Jed York said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings he would request the league to schedule any two of those games to be played on consecutive weekends. The Niners would then spend the week between said games in the York family’s homestead of Youngstown, Ohio, rather than fly back and forth to the Bay Area, as they did in early-season games in 2011 and 2012.

“Any time we’ve got multiple East Coast games,” York said, “we’ll try to do it.”

In 2011, the Youngstown stay occurred between games at the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles. A year later, it was between games at the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets.

The schedule is expected to be announced the third week of April.

“It makes it so much easier on the team, as opposed to going and coming back,” York said. “We’re always one of the top travel teams in the league, so if you can cut out 6,000 miles of travel, it helps.”

Consider the case of the Oakland Raiders: They have lost 16 straight games in the Eastern time zone, dating to 2009, by a combined score of 472-261, or by an average score of 30-16.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have been cleared to play host to a Monday Night Football game at year-old Levi’s Stadium for 2015, after being limited to weekend and holiday primetime games in the stadium’s inaugural season. The thinking was to get a gauge on how Santa Clara traffic would work before going live on a week night.

As far as the preseason goes, York said the only game the Niners are currently locked into would be at the San Diego Chargers.

And finally, with Levi’s Stadium playing host to Super Bowl L, San Jose State, Stanford and the Raiders' compound in Alameda are being considered as home bases for the two Super Bowl teams.

PHOENIX – While many observers may think Michael Crabtree was more trouble for the San Francisco 49ers than he was worth since they took him with the No. 10 overall pick of the 2009 draft, Trent Baalke apparently does not subscribe to that theory.

Not when the Niners general manager left open the possibility of the team re-signing Crabtree, who has found a dry market for his services as an unrestricted free agent.

“As long as Michael’s out there, he’s just like any other UFA; you never say never,” Baalke said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. “Michael did a heck of a job for us for six years.”

Crabtree has steered clear from the police blotter for a team that has become infamous for arrests the past three years. But his 49ers tenure began with a hiccup as he wanted money above his draft slot, held out the first four games of his NFL career, and was inactive for one game after signing his contract.

Foot and lower leg injuries have played a part in slowing him from becoming the game-changing receiver many thought he would be as a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner at Texas Tech.

Crabtree did have a career season in 2012, when he caught 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. But he missed all but five games in 2013 after tearing an Achilles’ the following offseason. He had 69 catches for 698 yards (a career-low 10.3 yards per catch average) with four TDs in 16 games last season.

He lamented his fall from grace as Colin Kaepernick's top target by calling himself a “third-down receiver” and a “fourth option” in the Niners offense.

The only free-agent visit Crabtree has taken thus far was to the Miami Dolphins last week.

PHOENIX -- Sure, Reggie Bush has tweeted out a few thoughts since officially becoming a member of the San Francisco 49ers last week. But he has yet to speak publicly, or take questions from Niners' beat writers on returning to his native California -- he's a SoCal native from San Diego.

Still, it got me thinking about the night he won the 2005 Heisman Trophy as a junior running back at USC, before his legacy became tarnished and he forfeited his title in the midst of an extra benefits scandal while playing for the Trojans.

I was in Manhattan that night, there to cover an Oakland Raiders-New York Jets game the next day for the Sacramento Bee, and caught up with Bush just after he won the award in a Times Square theater. Remember, this was in early December and factions were already forming for the upcoming Bush Bowl between the Niners and Houston Texans in the season finale.

A big storyline, as far as the Niners were concerned, was the possibility of Bush joining the 49ers to reunite with his old San Diego Helix High School buddy, Alex Smith, who had been taken No. 1 overall the previous April.

"Yeah, I think it is [special], just because Alex is a former teammate of mine and I'd love the opportunity to go up and play with him again," Bush told me that night on Dec. 10, 2005.

"He's a great competitor and a good friend of mine."

Of course, Smith is long gone to the Kansas City Chiefs and Colin Kaepernick is now under center for the Niners.

But Bush, apparently, has long had a soft spot in his heart for the 49ers.

"Oh yeah, I was a big Niners fan growing up," he said at the time. "Oh, man, Ricky Watters, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, all those guys."

Nearly a decade and four teams later, can Bush add his name to that list?

PHOENIX -- The NFL owners meetings are under way and apart from watching team owners and coaches walking a media gauntlet here at the Arizona Biltmore, which includes getting from one meeting to another, not much has happened thus far.

The media conference, though, hosted by the league's competition committee is scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. ET/1:15 p.m. PT in which tweaks to league rules are expected to be addressed.

From a San Francisco 49ers' perspective, new coach Jim Tomsula is not scheduled to meet with reporters until a breakfast session Wednesday at 7:15 a.m. PT.

Tomsula caught up briefly with the Sacramento Bee and CSNBayArea.com on Sunday and addressed a few topics sure to come up over bagels and orange juice.

  • On whether Tomsula has spoken with Justin Smith, to gauge if the veteran has decided whether to retire: "I have nothing to report," Tomsula said, per CSNBayArea.com.
  • On if the 49ers have had discussions of moving outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks back to inside linebacker, with the recent retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland: Not yet, per the Bee.
  • On if he was surprised by Borland's retirement: "Yeah, I was, I was a little surprised by that. But I was in Europe [coaching] for so long, you have to expect the unexpected and get going," Tomsula said, per CSNBayArea.com.

As a third-round draft pick last year, Chris Borland's four-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers included a signing bonus of $617,436, which the team paid up front. Of course, the general feeling is that a signing bonus is just that -- money for signing on the dotted line, thank you very much.

Legally, though, there is language in the signing bonus that covers the entirety of a contract. In this case, that's four years.

And as such, with Borland retiring after one season, the 49ers can attempt to retrieve three-quarters of the signing bonus from Borland, which would be $463,077.

The question is: Should they, or would it be merely another public relations nightmare in an offseason that has already had more than its fair share of fever dreams?

The Niners are not talking and recouping less than a half-million in bonus money would have a negligible effect on the team’s salary cap for 2015. But there is a matter of principle at play here.

Because while the Niners were stunned at Borland’s sudden retirement, they are also supportive. But at what cost?

Then there’s this: Borland’s salary-cap number for 2015 was a relatively paltry $694,359, or 1 percent of the Niners’ defensive cap, per ESPN Stats & Info. So while the 49ers will save $231,282 against the cap with Borland’s retirement, he will also cost them $463,077 against the cap in dead money.

Unless the Niners retrieve the remainder of Borland’s signing bonus.

Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast 48 as we look at the winners and losers of free agency after the first week of the new league year.

Host Paul Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers reporter) and co-hosts Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and Mike Wells (Indianapolis Colts reporter) will be joined by six other NFL Nation reporters throughout the expanded show.

Terry Blount (Seattle Seahawks reporter), Phil Sheridan (Philadelphia Eagles reporter) and Rich Cimini (New York Jets reporter) will commune with Wells to tell why their respective teams are winners thus far.

Meanwhile, Todd Archer (Dallas Cowboys reporter), Pat McManamon (Cleveland Browns reporter) and Bill Williamson (Oakland Raiders reporter) will commiserate with Gutierrez on their respective teams being labled losers in free agency.

Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.

Free-agency review: 49ers

March, 17, 2015
Mar 17
10:00
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Most significant signing: The knee-jerk reaction answer is Darnell Dockett, even with his turning 34 in May and having missed 2014 with a knee injury. The defensive lineman with a two-year, $7.5 million contract steps right into the San Francisco 49ers' defense, either as Ray McDonald's replacement to team with Justin Smith, or as a younger and bigger replacement for Smith, should he retire. But name recognition-wise, it's Reggie Bush, the tarnished 2005 Heisman Trophy winner from USC who can still be a game-changing playmaker at running back when healthy. Bush's details-unknown signing is more significant, though, because the addition of his skill set suggests the Niners are looking to change their offense.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsAdding Reggie Bush to the backfield could mean the 49ers are changing the way they run their offense.

Most significant loss: Let's call this a tie between running back Frank Gore, the Niners' heart and soul who departed for the Indianapolis Colts, and inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the Niners' spiritual leader who retired at age 30. But while Gore leaving was expected, even if his getting cold feet after agreeing to a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles set in motion an epic chain of events around the NFL, Willis' exodus caused shock waves still reverberating in Santa Clara. Both Gore, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, and Willis epitomized the 49ers' lean years as well as their recent run of success.

Biggest surprise: Short of Willis' decision to retire, the Niners showing what seemed to be absolutely no interest in retaining cornerback Perrish Cox and his team-leading five interceptions and allowing him to walk for the Tennessee Titans is a stunner. Cox was one of a handful of players to show up for new coach Jim Tomsula's introductory news conference in January and reiterated his desire to return to Santa Clara. Plus, with the Niners almost assured to lose fellow starting corner Chris Culliver (they did, to Washington), you'd think they would want some continuity out there at cornerback, no?

What's next: Justin Smith Watch '15. Dockett seemed to indicate the Niners were willing to go without the Cowboy. But if Smith decides to return for a 15th NFL season, San Francisco's offseason focus would shift to filling other gaps for depth in free agency before finalizing a draft plan. Smith told the Sacramento Bee he anticipated making a decision this week. The secondary could use some more help, even with the signings of Shareece Wright and Chris Cook. While they did add veteran lineman Erik Pears, who could compete to start at left guard or as a backup swing man, the offensive line could also use some work.

With the stunning retirement Monday night of Chris Borland, less than a week after Patrick Willis called it quits, the San Francisco 49ers currently have three inside linebackers with NFL experience on their roster.

Michael Wilhoite started 18 games.

Nick Moody started the last two.

And NaVorro Bowman is still trying to come back from the gruesome knee injury he suffered in the NFC title game in January 2014.

The 49ers suddenly need help at inside linebacker, a position that was supposed to be a strength for Jim Tomsula's first year as an NFL head coach. Instead, the Niners need depth, possibly a starter, and the position is one of need.

So as the new league year and free agency enters its second week, the 49ers had more than $5.07 million in cap space, per ESPN Stats & Information, Monday morning, before Borland's announcement to Outside the Lines went public (Borland had a cap value of less than $695,000).

A look, then, at three intriguing inside linebacker possibilities still on the market who might bolster the Niners' unit:

Rolando McClain -- Bay Area fans who had enough of Ro' in his three years as a bust with the Oakland Raiders, who made him the No. 8 overall pick of the 2010 draft, might be pleased to find how much he seemingly matured last season with the Dallas Cowboys in tying for second in the league's Comeback Player of the Year voting. He's still only 25 -- yes, he's retired twice -- and his 108 tackles ranked second on the team, despite missing four games -- he was inactive for three and missed one with a knee injury. He also had one sack, nine tackles for a loss, five quarterback pressures, two interceptions, six pass deflections and a forced fumble. Concussions, though, knocked him out of the Cowboys' two playoff games. Perhaps most intriguing -- while he was miscast as a middle linebacker in the Raiders' 4-3 scheme, he starred at Alabama inside its 3-4, the same alignment used by the 49ers.

Pro Football Focus grade: 13.9 (highest among remaining UFA LBs)

Lance Briggs -- Remember him? The 12-year veteran and seven-time Pro Bowler might be a little long in the tooth for the Niners' liking at 34 but he does have pedigree and presence. Even if he missed the Chicago Bears' last five games with a groin injury and three games earlier in the season with a rib injury. He earned $4.75 million in base salary last year, when he had 63 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble with two pass breakups and a QB pressure in eight starts, but is not expected to command that much this year. Plus, Briggs has been breaking down, having missed seven games in 2013 with a fractured shoulder. Before that, he had at least 100 tackles in nine straight seasons (2004 through 2012) and has 16 career interceptions, 15 sacks, 19 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. His six defensive touchdowns in 170 starts over 173 games are the third-most in Bears history.

Pro Football Focus grade: 7.6 (2nd-highest among remaining UFA LBs)

Brandon Spikes -- Spent the first four years of his career with the New England Patriots before playing last season with the Buffalo Bills on a one-year, $3.25 million contract. He started 10 games for the Bills and had 54 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. Spikes is more of a run-stopping linebacker, which the Niners need in the middle, but considered to have limited range as a pass defender, coming off the field in most of the Bills' passing situations. In fact, he played in just 46 percent of the Bills' defensive snaps. Spikes, you'll recall, was a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2010 and after being placed on injured reserve before the 2013 playoffs, he accused New England of violating injury-reporting rules. The NFL cleared the Patriots.

Pro Football Focus grade: 7.3 (3rd-highest among remaining UFA LBs)

ESPN.com Cowboys reporter Todd Archer, Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright contributed to this report.

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About 30 minutes after formally announcing his retirement in a tearful news conference at Levi's Stadium last week, a more upbeat if relieved Patrick Willis held court with beat writers in a nearby hallway.

The All-Pro linebacker wanted to thank reporters for their coverage, while explaining away any times he might have come across as obtuse or rude. And in the course of the low-key give-and-take, Willis brought up Chris Borland.

The youngster, Willis said with raised eyebrows and wide eyes, can play.

So good was Borland in his rookie season last year after replacing Willis, who went down with a toe injury after six games, that Willis said he was being asked by family and friends if he worried about the youngster taking his place in the San Francisco 49ers' starting lineup.

No, Willis assured everyone, he did not fear for his job.

But again, Willis reiterated, Borland was a baller, even if, as Willis pointed out, he had actually moved over from one inside linebacker position to the other to fill in for the injured NaVorro Bowman. So Borland, by proxy, was actually going to compete against Bowman this coming season, so long as Bowman's knee cooperated.

[+] EnlargeChris Borland
AP Photo/Tony AvelarChris Borland, who had 107 tackles last season as a rookie, has decided he will retire.

At least until Monday night, when "Outside the Lines" broke news of Borland's decision to retire after one season in the NFL.

From a pure X's and O's standpoint, Borland's retirement, on the heels of Willis' departure at age 30, leaves another hole as unexpected as it is massive in the middle of the Niners' defense.

Because while there were questions about how long the relatively diminutive Borland, who was generously listed at 5-foot-11, 248 pounds, could play with his physical style and speed, no one thought he would last only one season.

Consider: As a rookie, Borland racked up 107 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in 14 games, eight starts, and was the NFC's defensive player of the week after getting 13 tackles against the New York Giants on Nov. 16. He picked off Eli Manning twice in that game, becoming the first Niners rookie linebacker in franchise history with two interceptions in the same contest.

He was the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for November.

But an ankle injury suffered on an Eric Reid interception return in Week 15 at the Seattle Seahawks ended the third-round draft pick's season with two games to go.

With Willis and now Borland gone -- and with questions still swirling about the health of Bowman, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the NFC title game in January 2014 -- the Niners and new coach Jim Tomsula have some major tweaking to do to make up for Borland's productivity.

"While unexpected, we certainly respect Chris' decision," 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said in a statement. "From speaking with Chris, it was evident that he had put a great deal of thought into this decision. He was a consummate professional from Day 1 and a very well-respected member of our team and community. Chris is a determined young man that overcame long odds in his journey to the NFL and we are confident he will use the same approach to become very successful in his future endeavors. We will always consider him a 49er and wish him all the best."

Michael Wilhoite was reported to be on the trading block two weeks ago. That seems far-fetched now. The only other Niners inside linebacker with NFL experience under contract, besides the still-rehabbing Bowman, is Nick Moody, who started the final two games after Borland went down.

Practice squad member Shayne Skov is also on the roster, while Desmond Bishop, who joined the Niners on Dec. 15, is a free agent.

The weekend before the new league year began, linebacker was considered a strength for the 49ers. A week after the new league year began, the Niners are in need of inside linebackers by the bushel.

And the position is now one of need heading into next month's draft.

Perrish Cox led the San Francisco 49ers with five interceptions last season while Chris Culliver had four picks. The two cornerbacks will ply their trades as free agents next year for the Tennessee Titans and Washington, respectively.

The Niners, meanwhile, announced Saturday the signing of a pair of corners in Shareece Wright, a free agent who started his last 27 games for the San Diego Chargers, and Chris Cook, who played six games for the 49ers last year before his season ended with a torn hamstring.

But while Cox and Culliver combined for nine picks in 2014, Wright and Cook have a combined … wait for it … one interception. In a combined 84 games. In a combined 56 starts.

Something seems off kilter, no?

Especially when you look at the numbers crunched by Pro Football Focus.

It’s already been established that Wright is a pass interference magnet, the eight interference flags thrown at him last year -- one was declined -- led the league, one ahead of such notables as Buster Skrine and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, per ESPN Stats & Info. And Wright’s 12 pass interference penalties called since 2013 are the most in the NFL.

But PFF also reported that “Wright ranked in the bottom 10 among CBs in both years as a starter” for the Chargers with a minus-16.4 coverage grade last season, minus-11.1 in 2013.

Wright, who is not necessarily a big DB at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, played “out wide roughly 93 percent of the time the last two seasons” when lined up over a receiver, PFF found.

And while Cook had what PFF described as a “great” preseason last year after coming to Santa Clara following four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, allowing one catch in nine targets for six yards with two INTs for a 0.0 passer rating against in 36 coverage snaps, it came in, well, the preseason.

But at 6-2, 200 pounds, Cook is a more physical presence at corner.

Still, despite the acquisition of Wright and the re-signing of Cook, neither figure to start. At least, not on March 14. At the moment, the starters would seem to be five-year veteran Tramaine Brock and second-year man Dontae Johnson.

Brock and Johnson, at least, have eight total INTs, with seven by Brock, in six combined seasons.

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