SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Aside from quarterback, the inside linebacker job next to NaVorro Bowman was the most watched position battle the San Francisco 49ers had in this preseason. But unlike quarterback, where Blaine Gabbert won the job, the 49ers haven't picked a winner at inside linebacker.
"They’ll all play," O'Neil said. "We need them all to play. We need all three of them to win. We have a plan right now going into Week 1. I'll let you guys figure out that plan on Monday night. I'm not going to sit here and tell it to you now. But, we need Mike Wilhoite, we need Ray-Ray Armstrong and we need Gerald Hodges to be a good defense.”
Wilhoite, Armstrong and Hodges took turns working with the starters all through camp, rotating daily. In preseason games, they all started at different times but would rotate with the first group within the game. None of the three necessarily did anything to separate from the pack, though they all had their highs and lows.
In the preseason finale, it looked like perhaps Armstrong and Hodges had at least pulled away from Wilhoite, as they didn't play against San Diego while Wilhoite played all 58 snaps. When the 49ers released their unofficial depth chart on Tuesday, it listed Armstrong and Hodges as co-starters with Wilhoite on the second team.
But it's always been possible that all three could play in certain situations, and Wilhoite is the only one of the three trained to play in Bowman's spot if need be. He also offers special teams value.
O'Neil offered a reminder that the unofficial depth charts are just that.
“I don't buy into that," O'Neil said. "Those depth charts are written in sand. So that's one package, one personnel group. We could have eight different personnel groups up in any given game. So, I don't get into that.”
So no matter which linebacker stands next to Bowman on the game's first play, chances are someone else will enter the game at that spot sooner than later.