San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh met with the national media on Thursday at the NFL Combine, and then did some small group talk with Bay Area media. In the latter session, he had a chance to address NaVorro Bowman's status following his ACL surgery. During the discussion, he said "halfway through the season or something like that" was the most realistic return timeline for Bowman. Harbaugh was asked about the potential for Bowman to return for the start of the season. He said:
"I wouldn't count NaVorro Bowman out of anything," Harbaugh said at the NFL scouting combine when asked if it's possible Bowman could be ready for the start of the regular season.
"He's a supreme athlete, a world-class athlete among world-class athletes. The way he moves, his strength, his powers of healing. I wouldn't count him out of anything. Realistically, halfway through the season, something like that would be more realistic. But I never underestimate NaVorro Bowman."
There has been plenty of discussion about Bowman's rehab, and the timeline for his potential return. Some people have talked about that first game, but this will hopefully slow people down on their assumptions. It would be great to see him blow through his rehab, but as we are seeing with Tank Carradine's set-back, it's foolish to go too fast. That's not to say Bowman can't get back sooner than others. The speed of his rehab compared to that of Tank or any other ACL injury will vary, but the basic idea is just not to rush ahead of what would be reasonable for them.
For now, it seems safe to assume Bowman will start training camp on the Active/PUP list, and then open the regular season on the Reserve/PUP list. That would guarantee he sits out six weeks, but does not take up a roster spot. The team then would have additional time to work him back into practice, and then figure out their situation moving forward.
Of course, training camp does not even start for five months, so a lot can change between now and then. Furthermore, the regular season doesn't start for six and a half months, so that adds even more time. I still think the PUP list is a realistic possibility, but we're a long way from when the real decisions need to be made.
The question for now is how the 49ers will address the situation. Michael Wilhoite is currently the front-runner to handle ILB duties next to Patrick Willis. The reserves would then be Nick Moody and Darius Fleming. I do think Wilhoite could handle the ILB duties next to Willis, but I am inclined to believe the team will add another linebacker either a week or two into free agency or on Day 3 of the draft.
Fleming isn't guaranteed to do anything, and Moody is coming off a season in which he was primarily a special teams guy. The 49ers could have depth with those guys, but we really have no idea how the 49ers assess either of them. And given the fact that the 49ers will need depth early in the season, that's just a little bit important. Free agency and the draft will give us at least a little more insight into the 49ers thinking.