Borland: Young LB Steps Away
Chris 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