- Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
285dJeff Legwold and Paul Gutierrez