San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis is no stranger to hand injuries. Since his junior season at Ole Miss, the six-time All-Pro selection has worn a cast on his right hand on three separate occasions.
According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, Willis fractured his hand Wednesday and will need to wear a cast for a fourth time. Evidently, he injured himself during a one-on-one pass-blocking drill against fullback Bruce Miller, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Willis is not expected to miss any regular-season games because of the injury.
In years past, the hand has been heavily wrapped, often resembling a club. In 2010, Willis suffered a more severe break to his right hand. He played through the injury as long as he could, but finally missed his first game when he sat out the final game of the season after the 49ers were eliminated from playoff contention. He amassed 128 total tackles and six quarterback sacks in the 15-game campaign.
To ensure a full recovery for the start of the regular season, Willis will take it easy during camp. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that he makes a preseason appearance. San Francisco will give him the rest he needs while increasing Michael Wilhoite’s reps.
The 26-year-old Wilhoite is a former undrafted free agent out of Division II Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. He first debuted for the 49ers in 2012 and played primarily on special teams. He tallied the sixth-most special teams tackles last year in San Francisco with seven.
The 49ers front office was initially attracted to the 240-pound outside linebacker's surprising athleticism. At his college pro day, Wilhoite posted 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 36.5 inches in the vertical jump, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
Two other players who will see an increase in playing time will be sixth-round pick Nick Moody and seventh-round pick Nate Stupar. Positive reports out of training camp have helped Moody’s bid for a spot on the 53-man roster. Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News believes the Florida State product is the guy to watch, even if Wilhoite is penciled in as Willis’ immediate replacement.
Like Wilhoite, Moody displays above-average speed and is stout against the run. He made a name for himself in college by delivering big hits on a weekly basis.
Furthermore, head coach Jim Harbaugh showered the rookie with immense praise back in April. Harbaugh called Moody "one of the best we've seen" on special teams at the college level.
The Niners will need to work on his coverage skills, as Moody struggled at times with the tight end. This, in turn, led to reduced playing time his senior season. But San Francisco has one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL, which will help Moody smooth out some of his inefficiencies.
Keeping Patrick Willis out of harm's way and giving young, inexperienced players more reps is a win-win situation for the organization. Additionally, there always seems to be a silver lining to every perceived setback, especially when you’re the 49ers.
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