No one’s job on a 2-14 team should be safe, although the San Francisco 49ers probably don’t want to be rid of perennial All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman in 2017.
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Even if Bowman missed the majority of last year with an Achilles injury.
And yet rumors surfaced the Niners were dangling Bowman as part of an offseason trade attempt.
49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan got ahead of the news spreading and quickly denied any such rumor was true. Bowman remains a key part of San Francisco’s plans, for the immediate future at least.
But with Bowman coming off two serious injuries since 2014, how much should the 29-year-old linebacker be relied upon in long-term plans?
The thing is the 49ers can ill afford to part ways with a four-time first-team All-Pro. Aside from his rookie campaign and injury-riddled 2014 and 2016 campaigns, Bowman’s level of production is second to few at his position around the NFL.
And yet the Niners may have found his long-term replacement, former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. Although Foster may be more of a complement for Bowman, just like the latter was for former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis some years ago.
So let’s take a look at one of San Francisco’s favorite players in recent years and see what’s on tap for 2017.
Why He’ll Improve
Having played in just four games in 2016, it’s hard for Bowman not to have a higher expectation level than a year ago.
But let’s compare to Bowman’s 2015 campaign — a 116-tackle effort that led the NFL.
Bowman, per Pro Football Focus, also posted a league-best 73 defensive stops among linebackers that year:
So how can one expect Bowman to improve over these stats?
Well, San Francisco’s defense lacked the front-seven firepower it has now. Putting things bluntly, Bowman had to be everywhere on defense that year, hence the high number of tackles.
But Bowman’s coverage wasn’t particularly good, and PFF even awarded him with a “meh” 62.0 grade in 2015.
Switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base in 2017 gives Bowman MIKE duties in the three-LB formation behind the defensive front. Foster likely assumes WILL linebacking duties, which will allow him to make more of the high-stress plays.
This should give Bowman a chance to put his real talents to good use while not exerting too much pressure on his healing Achilles.
And if Foster is healthy and as good as advertised, the Niners will have a dynamic one-two duo at linebacker, just as the days of Willis and Bowman.
Why He’ll Regress
This isn’t a prediction, merely suggesting the possibility.
The biggest concern for a Bowman regression would be injury related. Right now, all signs are pointing to Bowman’s Achilles being fully healed, and it looks as if he’ll be ready to go by the start of the regular season.
Fortunately, an Achilles injury isn’t as near as serious as the 2014 NFC Championship injury he suffered — one which resulted in both ACL and MCL tears.
Still, two serious injuries could have long-term implications for Bowman and the Niners defense.
Bowman’s sideline-to-sideline coverage won’t be quite as good now (it wasn’t in 2015 or early 2016), and suddenly shifting to the exact middle of a front-seven defense means there will be some lateral-agility questions.
It’s why Niners Wire’s Jerod Brown suggested a move to SAM linebacker might be the best bet to utilize Bowman’s current abilities while creating less of a liability.
This would work if Foster, who is still a question mark with a shoulder injury, winds up taking over as MIKE. If not, and especially if Foster is unable to go.
What to Expect in 2017
From an injury perspective, we shouldn’t have to worry too much about Bowman’s arduous preparations following his 2014 injury. So the transition back to a full-time player should be much quicker and go more smoothly.
In all likelihood, Bowman starts off as the MIKE and retains his position as the defense’s leader and captain. That won’t change, even if Bowman eventually transitions to another side of the defense.
Depending on Foster’s development and maturation though, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bowman slide over to SAM at some point in the year.
This would almost be a case of history repeating itself. Remember, Bowman took over for Willis as the team’s best inside linebacker back in 2013.
Still, we shouldn’t expect anything less than another Pro Bowl campaign from Bowman this season. And with a much-improved crop of defensive talent supporting him, Bowman should be free to make impact plays without dealing with increased risk of trying to handle everything coming his way.