NaVorro Bowman signed a four-year contract extension on Wednesday, a sign the San Francisco 49ers think the All Pro linebacker will continue making progress in his comeback from a torn ACL and MCL. Bowman returned to the field last season, and while he did earn All Pro honors, he was rusty out of the gate, and there were some questions about his coverage skills.
Bowman is going to meet with the media on Thursday to discuss his new contract, but he already chatted with the media when he arrived to camp on Saturday (video). During the offseason workout program he had spoken about the improvement in his knee, and he reiterated it when asked if he felt back close to pre-injury form:
Yea, I’m not too worried about the knee. The knee feels great, but I’m still staying on it, so that anything that will hold me back won’t come up. I’m just excited to have another year, to go out and improve on the year that I had last year. Just to prove the doubters wrong, and get back to the level that I was at, and get the respect that I deserve. That’s really on my mind, just to prove whoever thinks I’m not the best, that I am.
Plenty of great athletes look for the real or perceived slights that might diminish their status. Back in June, the NFL Network Top 100 had Bowman ranked No. 61. Bowman called it totally bogus, and we can see how these signs of disrespect help drive him. He has earned All Pro honors every season he has been healthy and starting, but he said he is always looking for that edge:
Yea, I still look for slights. Of course, my wife does, she reminds me every day. “What are they talking about?” That’s just something that internally, as a player, you want the respect from everybody. Because we go out there, we risk our lives, we dedicate everything to this game. And when someone says something you don’t approve of, you gotta prove them wrong. I think that’s what makes you a great player.
As Bowman heads into his seventh season with the 49ers, and his fifth as a starter, he will get plenty more opportunities to prove himself. He will continue to be looked to for leadership, but Jim O’Neil’s offense will provide him with new opportunities. He was asked about some of the creativity in how the defense will use the linebackers, and he spoke to the need to know all the linebacker positions:
Well, you know, I think we have the biggest d-line right now, and when you see that, you want the linebackers to be free, and be able to run around and do the things that they’re good at doing. That’s his job to put us in the right spots, but as you mentioned, you’ve seen him doing a lot of different things. And guys can be on the edge, and the outside linebackers could be in our spot. So that’ll be a great experience for all of us, and I think he’s done a great job of letting us know that not just keying on one position, but all four.
With Aaron Lynch suspended the first four games, it would not surprise me at all to see Bowman get more opportunities in the pass rush. O’Neil could bring a particularly aggressive defense, and Bowman could be a significant beneficiary. In 2013, prior to his injury, he had a career-high five sacks. He had two sacks in each of 2011 and 2012, and then 2.5 in 2015. Look for an improvement this season.
And of course, it all comes back to the knee. He was asked if he has been able to work more on agility and change of direction this offseason now that the knee is improved:
Yea, just being more confident. Just pushing the knee to that limit, keeping up with guys that are healthy, haven’t had a knee injury. Guys giving me compliments on how well I’m moving, things like that. That’s really encouraging. And I’m really excited, to not have the pain that I did have, not having to spend as much time on the knee to get it ready for practice. Things like that are encouraging, and I’m looking forward to it.
That kind of stuff is critical if he is going to return to his pre-injury form in terms of covering tight ends and receivers. He was among the best at it before the injury. At 28, he could have a lot of football in front of him, so a complete return to form is a very real possibility.