Questions Facing 2011 49ers: NaVorro Bowman, Taking The Next Step?

As if the transition from college to the pro's isn't enough, 2010 3rd round pick NaVorro Bowman had to make a greater transition; from outside to inside linebacker. Many experts heading into the 2010 draft viewed the former Penn State standout as ideal for the 4-3 outside linebacker scheme, not many envisioned him playing a different role in the 3-4. However, San Francisco took a chance on the ultra talented linebacker.

Will it pay off? 

FF Toolbox had great things to say about Bowman leading up to the 2010 draft

Navorro Bowman is the best 4-3 outside linebacker prospect for the 2010 draft. Bowman has great speed for a 232 pound linebacker and is equally effective rushing the passer or dropping into coverage. Bowman has obvious first round talent.

The scouting report did go on to say that Bowman's off field issues may scare teams away. Well, that turned out to be the case. Despite being one of the most athletic defenders in the draft class, Bowman saw his stock slip all the way to the 3rd round where San Francisco, without hesitation, swooped him up. 

A key aspect that had a lot of people worried following the draft was how Bowman was going to handle his transition from the outside to the inside. After all, he was primarily an outside linebacker in Penn State's scheme. The transition to the inside was going to be steep for Bowman, who only had three years of college experience under his belt. 

This transition was aided by the presence of Takeo Spikes on the 49ers roster, who was nothing less than ideal for Bowman to learn from. Whether TKO took him under his wing or not, Bowman was going to learn a lot simply by watching the stud linebacker play. Needless to say, this "relationship" helped Bowman grasp the nuances of the game and make a better transition to the pro level and to a new position. 

Bowman played in all 16 games his rookie season and tallied 46 tackles. After initial struggles against Kansas City, Atlanta and Philadelphia, he picked it up a great deal towards the end of the season starting with the Seattle game in week 14. He capped off a pretty surprising rookie campaign by starting against Arizona in week 17 and acquiring a total of 8 tackles.

What surprised me the most during his rookie season was Bowman's ability to drop back into coverage. Now he was asked to do this a lot in college because of Penn State's scheme and many scouts called that a strength of his. However, I was extremely skeptical as to how he would handle the speed of the NFL and the necessity to read offensive plays before the snap. Well, like I said, Bowman surprised me a great deal when it came to this. He did struggle a lot in this aspect during the Kansas City game, but was able to make adjustments as the season moved a long. 

The one major issue that I saw with Bowman in 2010 that needs to be rectified is the fact that he is late to understand play action passes. Too often I noticed him bite on the play action, attempt to cover the run and left the middle of the field open for the receiver. This is something that I think the coaching staff recognizes and are going to work real hard to help Bowman. Additionally, I believe Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, who are both great in this aspect, will work with him.

Bowman is incredibly fleet of foot and has the ability to catch the running back on the outside before he turns up the field. I saw him do this on multiple occasions in 2010, this is really an extremely strong aspect of his game. We already know that Patrick Willis has the ability to do that, it would only add another dimension to the 49ers front seven if Bowman can continue to master this aspect of his game. It is really difficult for an offense to get started in the run game if the defense has two pursuing linebackers and strong rush ends in the 3-4. 

The following is from Dan Kadar at Mocking the Draft

Bowman did not surprise many by leaving Penn State early for the draft. He has a shot at being a top 20 pick because of his NFL ready speed and quickness. In a league that placing less value on size and more on speed, Bowman is going to be sought after by many teams. The lack of size will likely be an issue for Bowman however, and it could keep him off the field in a starting role for the first year or so. Linebackers that play as physical as Bowman but don't have the size are an injury risk. But if he can stay on the field, his level of play will be a factor if he can get the protection up front from a big, blocker-eating defensive line.

This goes right into what I was saying in regards to NaVorro Bowman's skill set. Most scouts believed that Bowman was one of the better 4-3 linebackers in the 2010 draft class. The fact that he transitioned well to the 3-4 scheme only bodes well for his ability to succeed down the line. Towards the end of his assessment Kadar acknowledged an important aspect of Bowman's chances to be a major factor in the NFL. He mentioned that  Bowman will need to get protection from "a big, blocker-eating defensive line".

Well, do the 49ers have that right now? I am not too sure. Aubrayo Franklin, if he returns, would fit that mold extremely well. Additionally, Justin Smith is a great all-around player that does eat up blockers. I also see Patrick Willis as the key figure here. Offenses will not be able to focus on NaVorro Bowman when bam-bam is in the game; it would be foolish for them to. So, you will see Bowman gain the ability to be freed up because of talent around him.

 

Is NaVorro Bowman Ready To Take The Next Step? Well, it depends on how you define "next step". Will he be able to come in this season and start right away? My answer to that question would be a definite yes. Would it be an ideal scenario for Bowman and the 49ers? No.

Right now, San Francisco has a great thing going with their middle linebacker group. Patrick Willis is the best linebacker in the entire league and Takeo Spikes has stepped it up a great deal over the last two seasons. Together they are probably the best MLB tandem in the NFL. Why mess with a good thing? 

Bowman should be given another year to sit behind and learn from Takeo Spikes, who has earned a shot at the playoffs with San Francisco. This would only strengthen Bowman's ability to succeed down the line. That said, I do envision a scenario in which he gets a nice amount of playing time. Fangio likes to disguise his schemes within the front seven, so you might see Bowman playing a different role if he is not starting. There will be circumstances where you will essentially see three middle linebackers in the game at one time; Willis, Spikes and Bowman. This will be utilized to disguise the scheme and confuse the offense. Both Willis and Bowman have the ability to blitz and get to the quarterback, and both can drop back into coverage. Spikes will play the role of a rover and man the middle of the field in these situations. Of course, this is pure speculation but I believe you will see a nice amount of this. 

So, Bowman will probably not start unless one of the 49ers two starters get inured or they don't re-sign TKO. However, he will get on the field more than he did in 2010 and continue to progress as a linebacker in the NFL. Moving forward, I fully expect Bowman to be a near all-pro player in the league.

Note: It is also important to understand that San Francisco traded down in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft with the San Diego Chargers to acquire Bowman. In that deal the 49ers picked up a 2011 4th round pick, which was used to trade up for Colin Kaepernick. Just thought you would find that detail interesting. 

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