At first glance it seems like Shayne Skov chose the bumpiest path to an NFL roster. The former Stanford linebacker may have gone undrafted after posting lackluster workout times (a calf injury kept him out of the combine and a hamstring injury slowed him during his pro day), but multiple teams were interested in his services as a free agent. Yet he chose to sign with the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers have two potential Hall of Fame players at middle linebacker: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Behind them are three other linebackers who’ll “have the licence” (as Harbaugh would say) to get Bowman’s snaps to start the season: Michael Wilhoite, Nick Moody, and 2014 third round pick Chris Borland.
Along with the Baltimore Ravens and possibly the Chicago Bears, 49ers middle linebackers have set the standard for excellent play over the last decade. So why not go somewhere else? Skov provided a few hints as to why he signed with the 49ers, and none of them had anything to do with traveling the shortest distance from Stanford Stadium to Levi’s Stadium (less than 14 miles) or the chance to playfully taunt LaMichael James a couple more times.
1. Bowman’s injury
“I looked at the team. Obviously, for the time being, NaVorro’s out. So there’s another spot that’s open,” Skov said on Friday.
Who knows, maybe Skov would’ve signed with the 49ers even if Bowman was fully healthy. If Bowman didn’t sustain that gruesome knee injury in the NFC Championship Game, maybe the 49ers don’t spend a third round pick on that position. But Skov sounded confident that he could beat out Wilhoite, Moody and Borland for that open spot next to Willis.
2. Questions about Borland
“It’s funny that everybody’s always trying to knock Chris’s height and stuff, but if you look at him play, he plays way bigger than any of his measurables. He’s a phenomenal player and I’ve always thought that. I’ve always loved watching him play because he’s an impact player,” said Skov, who sounded a little like his new team’s general manager.
“Well, it’s Wisconsin. I’m from Wisconsin. How can you not love him as a football player? Not tall enough, not fast enough, arms are too short, you hear all of that. We just love the makeup. We love the player,” Trent Baalke said after drafting Borland.
But does everyone in the building agree with Baalke’s last sentence?
“It’ll be interesting to see if his game translates to the NFL,” the eternally blunt Vic Fangio told Peter King.
Skov, who’s taller and possesses slightly longer arms than Borland, said he can run a 40-yard dash in the 4.8 range when fully healthy. He says he’s 100% now, and the 40-time he mentioned matches up with what Borland produced at the combine.
For Skov, coming to the 49ers is almost like someone in his or her early 20s moving back home with the parental units after graduating from college.
Clearly there are differences. The hash marks, for instance. Skov was a big man on campus; now he’s fighting for a job. He noted that at Stanford a lot of time is spent preparing for “all the bubble game that goes on and the gun read game” most of the teams in the Pac-12 like to run. However, playing in a Fangio-led defense is nothing new.
“I like the system,” Skov said. “There’s still a lot of connections with what we did in the past.”
He also knows exactly what he’s getting into with Jim Harbaugh.
“The environment of the pro system is different than the college system,” said Skov. “(But Harbaugh’s) enthusiasm and his passion remain a constant. He’s going to be the same guy I knew in college, basically.”
4. Skov gets recruited, 2.0
“I felt like there was a genuine desire from the coaching staff for me to be here,” said Skov. “I think the coaches have belief in me and my abilities as a player and I have belief in my own abilities.”
One could easily say the same thing about any of the other linebackers on the roster, but at least one coach – whether it was Harbaugh, Fangio or linebackers coach Jim Leavitt – said something to Skov that signaled a sincere interest. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have signed.
5. Skov was thinking long-term
For defensive players, getting cut by the 49ers is hardly a death sentence. Just ask two recently released ex-Niners, linebacker Darius Fleming and defensive tackle Christian Tupou, who were quickly snatched up by the Patriots and Cardinals, respectively.
If Skov signed with a team like the Raiders (the squad he was rumored to join before he ended up with the 49ers) and got cut, it would conceivably be tougher to convince other NFL teams to give him a shot. In joining the 49ers, Skov has nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
“I get the opportunity to learn from the best linebackers in the game between NaVorro and Pat. And I think I’m going to make my mark on this team. I’m going to contribute to this team at some point. So, because of that, I think it was the right fit.”