The San Francisco 49ers must discover life beyond NaVorro Bowman, including the security he provided via his defensive production.
Offense one year, defense the next—the 49ers will once again be bereft of a marquee player.
Top wideout Michael Crabtree missed the first 11 games of 2013 recovering from his torn Achilles tendon. San Francisco went 7-4 in his absence, but the offensive repercussions were especially significant during those four losses.
Now, Bowman—a team MVP and Defensive Player of the Year runner-up last season—could miss extended time in 2014.
The star inside linebacker suffered an unimaginably brutal ACL and MCL tear in his left knee during the NFC Championship Game. The horrific injury on an otherwise heroic goal-line stand against the Seattle Seahawks will forever be singed in the memory of all those who witnessed it.
CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco fortunately informed the public of Bowman’s successful surgery two weeks later on February 4.
Lauded surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who performed similar procedures on linebacker Von Miller and running back Adrian Peterson, among others, conducted the operation.
Recovery from this type of devastating injury typically lasts upward of six to nine months.
But Dr. David Chow, an internationally renowned physician, advised Maiocco that “there is not a set timetable for a return to action.” A multitude of factors can alter recuperation times from player to player—in both good ways and bad.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee that he “wouldn’t count [Bowman] out of anything” due to his “strength [and] powers of healing.”
Regrettably, Harbaugh also said that “halfway through the season…would be more realistic” for the timetable on Bowman’s return.
And that’s how the 49ers must orient themselves going forward.
Per the tenets of military parlance, they must hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Extrapolating to the realm of gridiron history, San Francisco must hope for a Peterson-like revival but prepare for one more akin to Mario Manningham’s experience.
Manningham, meanwhile, missed eight weeks, played in just six games and totaled 85 yards receiving in 2013 before being shut down by the 49ers in mid-December. The wide receiver’s season came to a premature end nearly one year after he tore his ACL and PCL versus Seattle.
For the purposes of this article, let’s assume Bowman begins the regular season on the Physically Unable to Perform list (PUP) and is sidelined for the mandatory six games.
Where will that leave the 49ers vis-à-vis contingency plans? How will they replace Bowman’s production? Will it come via simple plug-and-play substitution or more complex scheme changes?
Let’s break it down.
Bowman is Irreplaceable
Let’s first qualify that this Penn State alum belongs in the upper-most echelons of inside linebackers.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can’t just go out and “find another Bowman.” He was the 49ers’ leading tackler, a first-team All-Pro and Pro Football Focus’ top-rated ILB for good reason (subscription required).
Bowman covers, defends the run and rushes the passer all at elite levels. That includes a PFF-awarded top-eight coverage snaps per reception (12.9), top-four run-stop percentage (11.4) and third-ranked mark in pass-rush productivity.
Opposing running backs, underneath pass-catchers and quarterbacks are none too fond of No. 53.
And if wins above replacement (WAR)—baseball sabermetricians’ oft-cited statistic—existed for football, Bowman would easily rock an Infinty.5.
Or maybe just a Mike Trout-esque 9.2 from 2013, a number that Baseball Reference would deem MVP-quality.
Cross-sports digressions aside, we’ll now unveil what should materialize as a multi-player, multifaceted strategy by San Francisco’s coaching staff.
Training Camp Competition
Three-year 49ers backup Michael Wilhoite and 2013 sixth-round draftee Nick Moody are the first in line behind Bowman on the depth chart.
They are both qualified in unique ways and will receive the most playing time during the regular season (more later on these two players).
But until that time comes, team brass will likely honor its propensity for utilizing a social Darwinian approach to roster development.
That’s code for: General manager Trent Baalke will bring in veteran competition.
“We’re going to take a hard look to see if we need to infuse a little bit more competition into that position,” Baalke said to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle via SFGate.com.
If so, two options appear prominently.
Reputable ESPN scout Matt Williamson highlighted Akeem Jordan and Dan Connor to 49ers reporter Bill Williamson (no relation).
Connor, for his part, was a third-round draft pick out of “Linebacker U” (aka Penn State) in 2008.
He is a prototypical bull in run defense at 6’3’’, 233 pounds. Unfortunately, an injury-plagued 2013 campaign limited him to just four tackles over six games between the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers.
As Bill Williamson points out, these players aren’t high-priority signings. That’s especially true when acknowledging the 49ers' needs at wide receiver, cornerback and safety, and their minimal $15 million in salary-cap flexibility.
Yet, it’s still worth noting that the 49ers aren’t adverse to outside additions.
Jordan, Connor and other affordable possibilities could at the very least serve as motivating forces in the preseason for Red and Gold incumbents.
Wilhoite in Base, Moody vs. the Pass…and Patrick Willis
It goes without saying that the seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro Patrick Willis is an every-down linebacker.
The perennial gridiron force slotted in just nicely indeed behind Bowman at No. 2 on Pro Football Focus’ ILB rankings in 2013.
In the two games that Willis missed, Wilhoite filled in rather admirably alongside Bowman.
The backup asset led San Francisco in both tackles (20) and tackles for loss (three) versus the St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans in Weeks 4 and 5. The Chronicle’s Eric Branch astutely notes that Wilhoite helped “the 49ers [allow] the seventh-fewest rushing yards (18) in franchise history at St. Louis.”
Knowing his run defense and tackling proficiency, Fangio should insert Wilhoite next to Willis during 3-4 base sets and overall rushing downs.
What does Wilhoite think of this possible role?
“I’m going to do everything exactly the same,” Wilhoite said in an interview with Branch.
“When [Bowman’s] not playing, I’m going to do my best to fill in and help the team win games.”
Moody, for his part, will provide athleticism in coverage during additional defensive formations. This could include alignments featuring varying personnel groupings in both nickel and dime packages.
The versatile 6’1’’, 236-pounder recorded time as a rover, free safety and linebacker while at Florida State. He also ran a stellar 4.71 40 at the combine—a Bowman-esque time—and possesses above-average instincts and recognition, according to ESPN Scouts, Inc. (subscription required).
While average or slightly below in other categories, Moody can indeed defend the pass. Per ESPN Scouts, Inc.:
Rarely gets caught out of position and above-average gap discipline…Locates and tracks ball well…Recognizes play action and bootlegs…Reads keys and snuffs out screens…
It’s fair to assume that Moody himself would agree with that assessment.
“I definitely feel like I have a lot of upside,” Moody said to CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco after he emerged as a sixth-round selection in 2013.
“Being a former safety, I feel like it’ll help me a lot, especially in passing situations.”
Moody played just 10 snaps on defense last season. But he did register one tackle and one quarterback pressure. Pro Football Focus also credited him with two takedowns on special teams, a gridiron task he excelled at in college.
And Willis, through all of this, will never leave the field as the quarterback of the 49ers’ highly sophisticated defense.
He’ll also fulfill Bowman’s role as the sole linebacker in coverage in dime formations.
After all, Willis allowed one fewer touchdown than his counterpart through the air last season.
Again, there is only one NaVorro Bowman.
Wilhoite is a sufficient run-defender, but he doesn’t compare to Bowman’s mastery in coverage.
Who is the best replacement for Bowman in the early goings of 2014?
And while Moody might offer similar physical capabilities, he is a raw and unproven product.
Gloom and doom projections or not, can there even be light at the end of the potential six-game tunnel?
Oh, but of course.
As preeminent a player as Bowman surely is, the 49ers’ top-five defense is more than just the sum of its individual parts.
Justin Smith, Glenn Dorsey, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Willis will still help power the NFL’s unrivaled front seven. Vic Fangio, Jim Tomsula and the remaining members of this tremendous staff will still be coaching it.
So count on that collective dominance materializing just enough until the team's beloved stalwart returns.
The 49ers will survive short-handed one way or another in their upcoming playoff run—history proves it.
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