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49ers Evaluating 3 Inside Linebackers to Play Next to NaVorro Bowman

This early in the offseason, there are few certainties for the San Francisco 49ers in regards to their 2016 depth chart.

One such exception is that NaVorro Bowman's name is written in ink at the top line of one of the two inside linebacker positions. But when attempting to forecast who will play next to the four-time All-Pro, the picture is far less clear.

On Wednesday, first-year defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil told reporters that the competition to join Bowman in the first-team defensive huddle is a three-man race between Michael Wilhoite, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong.

Of the trio, Wilhoite has the most NFL experience. After starting all 16 games for the 49ers in 2014, the 29-year-old retained that role out of training camp in 2015 and went on to start the first 12 games of the season. An ankle injury forced Wilhoite to sit out the final four games. He finished the year with 85 tackles, including three for loss and one interception.

"We have a good unit here. We have a good group of guys, and I think that each and every one of us can play at any given time," Wilhoite said on SiriusXM radio last week. "I think we all bring different things to the team.

"I'm appreciative that they have that faith in us, and I think that we've earned that. I think that we've gone out on the field and proved it, we're capable of playing, each one of us, and we're capable of playing at a high level."

After Wilhoite went down last year, Hodges replaced him as the starter for the remaining four games. In those contests, the former Penn State teammate of Bowman recorded 39 tackles, including five for loss.

The 49ers initially acquired Hodges in October for a center Nick Easton and an undisclosed draft choice. The fourth-year pro is relishing the opportunity to show what he's capable of in his first offseason in San Francisco.

"It's been a blessing to come and compete with the talent we have here," Hodges said on Wednesday. "We're getting each other better. It's been great. Everyone is competing.

"It's all about evaluation right now. It's early in the offseason, but when it comes down to it, the best people are going to be on the field."

As for the third and final candidate, Armstrong is probably the option 49ers fans know least about. San Francisco claimed the linebacker off waivers from the Oakland Raiders last November. He later appeared in five games for the 49ers but only saw action on special teams.

For his career, Armstrong has made five starts (all for Oakland) and tallied 47 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. Armstrong played his college ball at Miami, where he starred as a safety. Those coverage skills still help the 25-year-old even at his new position.

"I feel like I have a lot to offer this defense," Armstrong said. "Just playing in the secondary in college – coverage kind of comes easy to me. Then playing linebacker these past couple years, I've picked up on a lot of different schemes.

"That should be in every player's mind – to come out and compete for a starting job. Just trying to go out there, get better every day and push towards that."

Throughout the three weeks of Organized Team Activities, each of the three players is scheduled to get three starts in practice. While the coaching staff hopes to learn more about each candidate in that time period, O'Neil recognizes that a starter will likely not be determined until training camp in August.

"We probably won't know, given the nature of that position, who's going to win it until we put the pads on," O'Neil said. "But I'm very comfortable with any one of those guys and if all three of them deserve to play, then they all will play."

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