San Francisco 49ers ILB NaVorro Bowman returned to the practice field Tuesday, and words can’t describe how important this development is to the 49ers.
In an offseason where the team has lost ILB Patrick Willis, ILB Chris Borland and (possibly) DE Justin Smith to retirements, Bowman’s return to form will be one of the main factors in whether or not the defense can maintain their elite status.
Bowman has been a dominant force in the NFL since he was inserted into the starting lineup at inside linebacker in 2011. He was selected as a first-team All Pro from 2011-2013, and made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2013.
In three full seasons with the 49ers, Bowman’s racked up 482 tackles, 9.0 sacks, three interceptions and five forced fumbles. His 2013 campaign may have been his most impressive, as he helped keep the defense afloat while the unit was without the likes of Willis and OLB Aldon Smith for extended periods of time.
Bowman finished 2013 with 145 tackles to go along with 5.0 sacks. He forced six turnovers (four fumbles and two interceptions), and his 89-yard interception return for a touchdown in Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons may have been the biggest play of the season for the 49ers.
He was also named Defensive Player of the Month for his performance in December of 2013, as he was the only player in the last 20 years to records at least 45 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, an interception return for a touchdown, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in one calendar month.
Although he was clearly at the top of his game, Bowman’s impact on the 49ers may have been vastly underrated nationally. For example, he didn’t receive a single vote for Defensive Player of the year in 2013, despite the accomplishments listed above. However, anyone who watched San Francisco play on a weekly basis knew the true impact of a healthy Bowman.
Whether or not he can return to being the player he was from 2011-2013 is the real question though, as he is trying to return from a devastating knee injury that saw him tear both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. The road back has been a long one, and there’s no guarantee Bowman will have the same explosiveness and sideline-to-sideline speed he once demonstrated.
Looking past the natural concerns, seeing Bowman back on the field is a good sign and the first step in having him back at (hopefully) full strength. His return to form (or close to it) will be crucial for the 49ers and their defense moving forward.