I've been a fan of NaVorro Bowman since his collegiate years as a Lion at Penn State, so naturally when the 49ers selected him in the 2010 NFL Draft, I was excited. It became clear what the 49ers had in mind, with Takeo Spikes still on the roster at the time: let Bowman learn behind Spikes and Patrick Willis while getting repetitions as a sub.
With the departure of Spikes, Bowman is stepping up to fill the other inside linebacker spot next to Willis. It's been my intention to follow his progression this year, and now that the 49ers have competed against a tough team in Dallas, it seemed fair to evaluate Bowman's performance thus far.
In his first year as a starting NFL linebacker, Bowman appears to be right where he should be performance-wise. And even though there are things he needs to improve on, I'd say he is on track to becoming a very good linebacker. He played an awful lot like Jerod Mayo of the New England Patriots in his first year. He played aggressive, physical and racked up the tackles.
Against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, Bowman led the team in tackles with 9, beating Willis by one. The second year linebacker played strong at the point of attack, displaying good tackling ability, between the tackles and in space. He shoots the gaps real well, but his play recognition needs to improve.
He continues to struggle in zone coverage calls, while his athleticism allows him to excel in man coverage. Against Dallas, Bowman shut down Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten on a few plays; running sideline to sideline with him and 30 yards deep. He even had a real nice pass breakup on an out route to the backup tight end. But this was in man to man; he allows too much cushion for receivers to secure the catch before he gets in on the tackle.
Regardless, not only did Bowman show that he is athletic enough to play with an elite tight end, but that he can take away the oppositions running back. In two phases of the game, Bowman refused to let the back to get going. The linebacker was stuffing the run, as well as taking away the check-down on swing routes.
His style of pursuit to the ball is similar to team captain, Patrick Willis. More than once, I have seen Bowman engage the blocker, shed him and make the tackle. While a lot of linebackers like to avoid getting caught up with a blocker, some like to be the aggressor and win the battle before it sneaks up on them.
It was also noticeable to see how Bowman was trying to improve as the game went on. Early on in the game, he wasn't playing low enough and it was easy to tell this because Willis was right next to him and his stance wasn't near Willis'. Willis makes so many great tackles because he is patient and doesn't explode until the point of impact. Bowman started to adjust his pre-snap stance after a few series and continued playing the game from a lower position.
I would also like to see some more toughness out of Bowman. I'd like to see him become a feared player -- someone offenses game-plan around and has "miles and miles of heart." He got knocked off his feet and taken out of the play a couple times versus Dallas, which looked just awful. He needs to get a yoga instructor or learn to surf or something because that balance was embarrassing.
I was also fairly disappointed that I didn't see defensive coordinator Vic Fangio really let him loose. Like I said, I think Bowman really has a talent for shooting the gap and doesn't make ridiculous encroachment penalties (*Cough* Ahmad Brooks *Cough*). Bowman is also blessed to have a talented but blue-collar crew of defensive linemen in front of him to make his job a bit easier.
My diagnoses for NaVorro Bowman is: So Far, So Good. I think he has the talent and heart to become a very accomplished NFL linebacker and his journey has barely begun. I know fans are disappointed we didn't capitalize on a 2-0 start but there are plenty of good 1-1 teams out there (Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles). Also, 7 of last years playoff teams began the 2010 season with a 1-1 record.
Bowman is going to continue to improve his game, and I will continue to follow his progress and deliver what I feel is the most accurate and fair assessment. He is going to play his heart out for San Francisco and maintain a strong interior of that 3-4 defense with All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. With the Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers facing father time, the NFL could be ready for a new era of tough defense led by strong linebacking.
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