Borland: Young LB Steps Away

Opting to call it a career, 24-year-old linebacker Chris Borland steps away. Sam Monson looks at the mark Borland made during his lone NFL season.

| 2 years ago

Borland: Young LB Steps Away

borland-retireChris Borland made one of the most seismic decisions to hit the NFL in a long time overnight, choosing to walk away from a promising NFL career almost before it had really begun because he feared what the game will do to him if he plays it much longer.

Borland is just 24 years old. He was a third-round draft pick a year ago and including his signing bonus (assuming the 49ers don’t try to recoup some of that), he will have called time on his NFL career after earning $1,037,436. That’s a huge windfall for you or I, but for an NFL player to call it a career at just 24, it’s a pittance. Ndamukong Suh just signed a contract that pays him sixty times that in guaranteed money alone.

Expectations were that Borland was just about to be handed a starting inside linebacker spot in San Francisco that was vacated by Patrick Willis, who himself retired just a few days previously. Willis’ retirement makes far more sense in conventional terms. He is 30 years old, he has earned something in the region of $42m during his career, and he walks away after having been one of the best players in the game since he entered. He is suffering from some lingering issues and it just makes sense for him to walk away, still in his prime.

Borland hasn’t even had a chance to hit his prime yet. He was a mid-round draft pick who was not seen as a great prospect but exploded into the league as a rookie stepping in for an injured Willis last year.

He played just 487 snaps, but played them well enough to earn a +20.8 PFF grade, the fourth-best mark among inside linebackers. From Week 6 onward Borland notched 54 defensive stops, the best in the NFL over the remainder of the season despite missing the final two games with injury. He notched 82 solo tackles and 10 assists (using PFF’s retrospective, more accurate, count) in nine games. That’s an average of being in on more than 10 tackles per game.


If Luke Kuechly is a prolific tackling machine, Borland showed he was a tackle-seeking missile from his linebacker spot.

Kuechly made a defensive stop in the run game on 12.3% of his snaps against the run this season. That was a mark good enough for fourth in the league, and helps to explain a big step forward in grade this year from his previous play. He wasn’t just making tackles this season, he was making impact tackles in and around the line of scrimmage, causing wins for the defense. Borland made a run stop on 21.3% of his, by far the best mark in the league, and the only inside linebacker to top 20% since PFF has been grading.

People criticize Borland’s coverage ability, but that’s not something that holds up from grading the tape. Did he give up plays in coverage? Of course. All linebackers do. But he earned a positive PFF grade for his coverage this season, and surrendered just a single touchdown. He notched a pair of interceptions and two more pass breakups, and when targeting him opposing passers had a QB rating of 83.1, which was bettered by just six other inside linebackers.

His big problem perhaps is that one of those players was Patrick Willis, who led the league for the position by limiting opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 58.3 when throwing at him, so by comparison Borland looked like a liability, but the truth is he was far from it.


After week 11 I wrote this piece on Borland. It focused on the complete play he had been displaying. Nothing that happened after that moment changed my opinion of him as a player. We got to witness a glimpse at a guy who had the chance to be something exciting moving forward. Patrick Willis retiring was a shame, but I was hugely looking forward to seeing what Borland could do as a starter in his place over a full season.

We are now never going to see what he could have done, and that is a huge shame for football fans, but for him to pass up this opportunity and walk away from his NFL career before it really had a chance to take off speaks volumes about his view on the whole thing.

The talk of concussions and brain injury has, until now, been confined to former players and current players that have suffered multiple concussions, enough to cast doubt over their futures. Borland claims to have suffered just two diagnosed concussions in his lifetime, only one of which came while playing football and neither of which since he started playing in college or as a pro. We are talking about a player who has taken a proactive step to walk away from the game purely because of the fear about what it will do to him long term, before he is ever presented with an acute realization of that fear in action.

Whether you agree or disagree with him, you have to respect the courage that took, and what he leaves on the table by walking away.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam



| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Jason Williams

    I have a strong belief that Harbaugh’s exit played a big role in this.

    • Tim

      I have a strong belief you are stupid.

      • Mark


    • Jordan

      Do that many people really believe this? Justin Smith is up there in age and is only considering leaving right now, Patrick Willis had lingering feet issues that were bothering him and Borland seems to just have his long-term health in high priority. Any one of these guys could have demanded a trade/release if they really didn’t wanna be there without Harbaugh, why would they leave a game they love and is paying them millions because a coach left?

      • Izach

        While I agree on this certain situation has a harbaugh was only there 4 years, wasn’t any of their college coaches, wasn’t there for their whole career (except Borland 1 year) and for most parts didn’t end well either. I don’t think he had the impact on their lives that say a dick lebeau has had on Troy P, or Ike Taylor plus as the head coach he is as involved as a positional or coordinator would be in the players on a daily basis. I but I would understand leaving the game when someone else who you respect also leaves, or if they are teated poorly by a team you leave that team. Some NFL players see their teammates as brothers

        • Jordan

          Don’t disagree at all, I definitely believe coaches influence careers waaay more than some NFL fans believe. And having played football personally, I totally get the brotherhood thing. But I couldn’t imagine (borland’s situation) working almost your whole life to get to a professional level and then calling it quits when your head coach leaves, before even giving the new head coach (or another team) a chance

    • MosesZD

      Considering he pretty much decided this during training camp, long before Harbaugh was fired, I’ve got to assume you’ve taken one too many shots to the head and you should retire from commenting on the 49ers.

  • davathon

    Strange decision. The kid plays football his entire life. He finally gets a chance to make a lot of money doing it and he quits. I wonder why he played football in college if he was so concerned about concussions. It’s not like people just discovered this year that you could get concussions playing football and that it’s not good to get them.

    • MrBoo

      Well the Pros hit harder, there is much more pressure to perform and i am 100% sure that the Doping and all the other Stuff takes a big toll on your body. If you dont want to take all this stuff, you will be out of the league pretty fast. Just because they seldom catch doping abuser, does not mean the Sport is clean. Its like Soccer, where the never catch anyone with anything.

    • Dave

      The awareness of the danger of prolonged exposure to head trauma has increased exponentially over the last few years. When Borland entered college he probably didn’t think much about it. He has said that by the end of his college years he was thinking about it. He also said that he basically knew in his rookie training camp that he was only going to play one year, after he had an (undiagnosed) concussion that he played through. At that point he talked to a lot of people including former players and doctors, and made his decision. Good for him.

      There is pretty consistent research showing that about 1/3 of NFL players will eventually experience serious neurological consequences from their playing days. There is a smaller body of research that says that for college players the percentage is still quite high. Like a smoker who smokes 3 packs a day for 10 years and then quits, Borland is still at high risk for problems as he ages, but his risk is most likely lower than if he played in the NFL for 10 years.

    • bobrulz

      You’re saying this as if it was a pre-determined, easy decision that he could make his mind up on overnight. I doubt he thought about it much, if at all, when he entered college. By the time he left it may have been on his mind much more, but it wasn’t until experiencing a concussion, and then playing an entire season of NFL football, and analyzing all of the available information, that he truly made his decision.

      It may be “strange” because it’s not something that really anybody has ever done before. But in this case, he’s choosing his long-term health over money. I would hardly call that strange.

      As for your other point, I think most football players are aware of the risks now. But the majority of them will continue to take that risk because they DO want the money and fame. And I understand that. Borland is just the first one that decided that he didn’t think the risk was worth it.

    • Izach

      I’ll be honest and say Borland probably has a better future than most NFL stars who never finished college, and are from bad areas or ruin homes. So the decision comes from a different perspective especially if he knows he can go elsewhere to make a living. Also from a standpoint on why play football at all? First off it played his college so now he has a college degree for free or for sacrificing 4 years of his health has a college degree if you want to look at it that way. Also with one year he made a million Dollars. Tell most ppl they be beat up everyday for months and given a concussion while risking their life, but they can choose to stop whenever they want and after 1 year you’ll get a million dollars I think a lot of ppl would do it. Some even say they’d do it for free ️️haha. Also put in the fact that he says he was contemplating it since training camp where he believe he had a concussion but didn’t tell anyone so he could make the team. And you can see why he’d change his mind after 1 year doing it

  • Jaguars28

    What a shame… great football player. But doing what he thinks is right, I respect that.