When he was drafted with the 77th overall pick in the NFL Draft earlier this year, former Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian said this, when draft analyst Todd McShay compared his build and potential production to one Miami Dolphins great, Zach Thomas:
This is an okay pick in the 3-4, but athletically, he is not the guys you just talked about. He’s lacking a little bit on the athletic side of it. In a 3-4, where he could just plug-and-play, that’s kind of okay. 4-3, no fit at all, because the speed at the lateral movement isn’t what you want.
Ignoring the fact that a great talent evaluator forgot that the 49ers run a base 3-4 defense, it wasn’t out of line to evaluate senior Wisconsin LB Chris Borland like this. After all, one of his main drawbacks was that his measurables weren’t typical of an elite linebacker – particularly, his “tyrannosaurus Rex-like” 29-1/4-inch arms.
But it was also hard to ignore that Borland was named Big Ten Linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 for a reason. He was named to the All-Big Ten Team, and racked up at least 100 tackles and 8 tackles for loss in each of his last three seasons as a Badger. And if he could translate his monster tackling skills to the NFL, there was no telling the potential the 23-year-old from Kettering, Ohio could reach.
So far – at least, in the small sample of four NFL starts – question answered.
It was bad enough that Borland had to step into his first NFL start filling in for All-Pro, and future Hall of Fame LB, Patrick Willis – he had to do so against the Denver Broncos, considered one of the best offenses in the league, at Sports Authority Field. Despite a blowout loss, Borland recorded a team-high 8 tackles, including his first career sack, against QB Peyton Manning.
From there, the rest has been recent history: the diminutive Borland has averaged 16.0 combined tackles per game – and has made plays a seasoned veteran would be proud of making – in his last three games started. In a much-needed win against the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Borland came up with a key fumble recovery late in overtime to help seal the 27-24 victory.
The next week at MetLife Stadium, when the 49ers offense was struggling to score points, Borland accounted for 2 of the defense’s 5 interceptions of QB Eli Manning – the first 49ers rookie LB to pick off multiple passes in team history. The second essentially sealed the team’s 16-10 victory over the New York Giants.
Now, after receiving his first Rookie of the Week Award for his efforts against New Orleans, and his valiant performances in the wake of the 49ers’ loss of Willis for the season, all eyes are beginning to turn toward the potential Rookie of the Year candidate. Coach Jim Harbaugh has already called him “a thief in the night” who has a “knack for the football”, while calling himself “at least tied for first in the Chris Borland fan club”.
The real test for Borland will come later in the season – especially two meetings in three weeks against arch-rival Seattle. Can he stand up to bruising backs like Marshawn Lynch? Can he make the same impact plays against QBs like Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers? While it may be premature – perhaps unfair – to ask these kinds of questions with a rookie, the fact remains – we shall see.
It will also be interesting to see what the team will do down the road with a LB corp comprised of Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aaron Lynch, Aldon Smith (if he keeps his head on straight), the infamously-disgruntled Ahmad Brooks, and Borland. Then again, with the sheer talent showing in that group of men, it’s a great problem to have.
One thing’s for sure – there’s no arguing with Borland’s production on the defensive side of the ball so far this season. And with other rookies like Lynch and CB/S Dontae Johnson stepping up for the 49ers, this defense – especially when they get Bowman back later this season – will be set for the foreseeable future.
And, right there on the inside, stuffing runners, making tackles and making plays, will be Borland – the overachiever with the small arms, and doubted coming out of the draft. If all goes well, he is certain to have a bright future with the San Francisco 49ers.
Not bad for an okay 3-4 guy, lacking on the athletic side.