Who will fill the void inside next to Willis?

When speaking of one of the few positions in which the 49ers don't already have a 2008 starter in place, coach Mike Nolan said of the inside LB position next to Patrick Willis, "Yeah, we still have an issue there. We've still got to find somebody. It could come out of the guys we currently have on the roster." But who on the roster could really fill that void? Here, SFI takes a detailed look.

The 49ers figured to go searching this offseason for an inside linebacker to pair with Willis. What they found was veteran Dontarrious Thomas in free agency and rookie Larry Grant with their seventh-round selection in the NFL draft.

Now, that isn't exactly what the 49ers were counting on in their quest to replace Derek Smith, whose skills began to erode at strong-side inside linebacker - the "Ted" linebacker in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme - last year to the point that he was only playing on base downs by the end of the season.

Smith, San Francisco's leading tackler each season from 2001-2005, no longer fit into the 49ers' plans and was released from the final year of his contract with the team in February. He promptly signed with the San Diego Chargers.

Veteran Jeff Ulbrich started two of San Francisco's final three games next to Willis last year, and he has previous starting experience on the inside with the 49ers. Brandon Moore, who took Ulbrich's place as a starter in 2006, also has experience at the position, but the 49ers now are saying Moore will be a backup for Willis at the weak-side "Mic" position.

"We are six deep inside at two positions," Nolan said. "Patrick is the Mic linebacker. The three Teds will be Ulbrich, Grant and Dontarrious Thomas. Not particularly in that order, but those three."

Here, we take a look at and compare the virtues of those three as the heir apparent to the 'Ted' position, along with Moore - who also needs to be considered for the job - and newcomer Dennis Haley, a fourth-year NFL veteran who got a lot of work at inside linebacker earlier this month during San Francisco's spring minicamp.

Barring the 49ers adding a late free agent to take the position, we also handicap the battle to become the team's next regular "Ted."

JEFF ULBRICH: The scrappy ninth-year veteran ran as the starting inside linebacker next to Willis during the team's spring minicamp, and he displayed his usual straight-line quick burst to the football and his aggressive willingness to stick his nose into the fray. Ulbrich, San Francisco's third-round draft choice in 2000, was a regular starter at inside linebacker from 2001-2004 when the 49ers were running a 4-3 defense, and he was a productive player who recorded 138 tackles in 2003 and a career-high 167 in 2004. The next season - after the team shifted to a 3-4 base set upon the arrival of Nolan and Co. in 2005 - Ulbrich was among the NFL's leading tacklers after five games before a torn biceps that required surgery ended his season. He returned as a starter inside next to Smith in 2006, but was not as effective as before and eventually lost his starting job to Moore at midseason. That seemed to signal that Ulbrich's career was on the decline and he would spend the rest of his days with the 49ers as a backup, but he continued to work hard and experienced something of a rebirth last year, when he was starting next to Willis by the end of the season. Ulbrich definitely has the smarts, instincts and quickness to start at the position, but the Niners need a man there who can take on blockers while Willis roams free to make plays. At 6-foot and 240 pounds, Ulbrich does not have optimum size for the position - or the size the 49ers would like to have there. But he has most everything else. If the Niners can't find a high-profile veteran free agent to take the job in the next few months (Takeo Spikes' name has been tossed around several times), it should belong to Ulbrich entering training camp and will stay his until someone takes it away from him. Odds of being the next "Ted": 3-1

DONTARRIOUS THOMAS: The 49ers signed this guy - a former second-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2004 - with the expectation he would come in and compete for the Ted position and perhaps thrive in it after playing behind a very good set of starting linebackers in Minnesota. At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, Thomas has decent size for the position. The question is if Thomas is up to the task. Despite his draft pedigree, he started just 10 games in his first three NFL seasons, finishing with 97 tackles and 1.5 sacks over that span. Last year, he played in 13 games - no starts - and recorded a career-low five tackles, and the Vikings were happy to let him walk once his contract expired. The 49ers immediately jumped on Thomas as a second-tier free agent because of his potential. At the time Thomas was signed in early March, Niners general manager Scot McCloughan said, "Dontarrious will be coming in fighting for a starting job at Ted. If not, he's going to be a good backup at the Ted position and at the outside linebacker spot, and he'll be a really good special teams player." Sounds sort of like the Niners, from the start, weren't really counting on Thomas to be the guy at Ted. And by what he's shown so far - of course, it's still the shorts and helmets stage of offseason workouts - he's not going to be. Thomas didn't make much of an impression during the May minicamp, and he will have to show a lot once the pads go on to earn the right to play next to Willis. Odds of being the next "Ted": 8-1

BRANDON MOORE: It's sort of difficult to figure out why the 49ers aren't giving Moore first crack at the starting job here. OK, maybe it's not so difficult to figure out. The team just doesn't seem to feel he has the focus or consistency to maintain a place in San Francisco's starting lineup. Still, it seemed a little strange that the 49ers now have Moore - the team leader in both tackles and sacks from the Ted position in 2006 despite starting only 11 games - backing up Willis on the weak side instead of putting him smack in the middle of the competition on the other side. "Brandon will be the Mic," Nolan said. "He can go inside, outside, but he will be behind the Mic backer." At 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, Moore has the perfect beef to play the position, and he has shown good production when given the opportunity. He had 93 tackles in 10 starts in 2005 after Ulbrich was hurt, then stepped up to lead the team with 114 tackles and finish fourth among NFC linebackers with 6.5 sacks after taking Ulbrich's job in 2006. Maybe the team was trying to send a message to Moore by putting him behind Willis this spring. But then, that's what some people thought the Niners were doing when they inserted Willis in the starting lineup and shifted Smith to the starting Ted position previously occupied by Moore during training camp last year. Moore wasn't heard from much again - he started just one game at outside linebacker and finished the season with 30 tackles and 2.5 sacks, being used mostly in situational roles - and now he appears out of the Ted mix. But that could change by the end of August, and Moore still has to be considered a legitimate contender for the role. Odds of being the next "Ted": 9-2

LARRY GRANT: The Ohio State product flashed some nice skills during the May minicamp, and he was quick to the ball and seemed to have good comprehension of what was happening within the scheme. But can he really be considered a serious contender for this important role as a rookie? Although he had a tremendous career in Junior College - he was named National JC Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2005 - he has only one season of major-college starting experience. That came last year at Ohio State, when he recorded 51 tackles in 13 starts but also was a playmaker who had 9.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and an interception he returned 49 yards. At 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds, Grant has the speed and athleticism to play anywhere along the second level of San Francisco's 3-4 scheme, but at this point he doesn't appear to have the bulk to play Ted in the system. During minicamp, he looked very slender from the waist down and had the look of a player who will have to get bigger and stronger to handle the responsibilities he'd face lining up inside next to Willis. Odds of being the next "Ted": 22-1

DENNIS HALEY: Haley probably is the most unknown among this group, and it no doubt went under the radar when he was signed by the 49ers in January, two weeks after the season ended. Originally an undrafted free agent signed by the New York Jets in 2005, Haley was signed off the Jets' practice squad by the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie and he has seen regular-season playing time with the Ravens each of the past three years, though he played in just two games last season and recorded only one tackle. Haley had 13 tackles in nine games in 2006 and has 18 career tackles and three passes defensed in 15 games with the Ravens. At 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds, he barely has the size the 49ers are looking for at the position and, with decent coverage skills, seems better suited to the weak side position. Odds of being the next "Ted": 65-1

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