With the release of NaVorro Bowman, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan truly demonstrated their commitment to a wholesale revamp of the 49ers in the coming years.
Yes, they took a minor hit on their ability to do so by cutting rather than trading the veteran linebacker, but Bowman’s years of excellent service to the team had earned him the right to choose his next destination, even under different leadership from his own glory years.
Reading between the lines, it is painfully obvious that Bowman’s inability to accept a diminished role was a major reason for his 49ers career coming to an end. Even though the 49ers are adamant that Bowman eventually did come around to accepting his new role, the fact that the conversation had to take place in the way it did got the ball rolling on his release.
On the one hand, the competitor that he is means that he was unlikely to settle for a diminished role without a fight, but this fight should have taken place exclusively on the field, rather than off it as well. The on field struggles of Bowman ensured that his battle to retain his number one status among the 49ers’ linebackers would prove a fruitless one, and the apparent off field problems this caused will likely taint Bowman’s legacy in San Francisco in the short run.
Had he accepted his reduced on field role without all the fuss, it’s possible he could have still remained a major locker room figure as he helped to guide this particularly promising edition of the 49ers’ defense into the next chapter of a much vaunted defensive history.
As it is, the defense will move on without one of its biggest leaders - a loss whose significance will not be immediately apparent to those outside of the 49ers’ building.
There is nevertheless immense hope for this defense, hope that not only takes much of the sting out of Bowman’s release, but also helped to make it a possibility in the first place. DeForest Buckner has performed at an elite level this season, and safety Jaquiski Tartt has been performing close to, if not at that level himself.
Tartt’s rise will certainly have helped to facilitate Bowman’s release. The 49ers seem confident (and indeed comfortable) in the abilities of Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid to execute in this scheme, and with Tartt outperforming them both this season, the team is quite capable of living in three safety packages. Based on performances alone, the third year man out of Samford should be the team’s number one safety at this point.
Tartt’s ability to play deep and in the box, alongside Ward’s versatility as a deep safety/nickel corner and Reid’s qualities as a pure box safety ensure the 49ers can match up very well with whatever an offense throws at them. Though Tartt’s performances could make Reid expendable, the prospect of re-signing the injury prone Reid to a team friendly contract at the end of the season to play exclusively as a box safety/pseudo-linebacker whilst Tartt and Ward are used more flexibly could be a very attractive way of utilising their personnel and getting their best eleven players onto the field.
Even if Reid is paid as a top ten or top fifteen safety, his contract would compare very favourably to whatever the team could pay a similarly talented linebacker.
Of course, the man who is being lauded as Bowman’s replacement is Reuben Foster. With just eleven (admittedly explosive) regular season snaps under his belt, Foster has stolen the hearts of a fan base.
More importantly, he has shown the 49ers’ front office and coaching staff that he is ready to start to take on a major role as a cornerstone of the 49ers’ defense. Comments earlier this week regarding Foster apparently calling plays and lining up the defense should have perhaps offered greater forewarning of today’s news, but certainly now demonstrate the greater burden he will be asked to shoulder once healthy.
Alongside Foster, Brock Coyle and particularly Ray-Ray Armstrong have also shown enough to suggest that they can be productive enough in this scheme to justify losing a franchise stalwart. Robert Saleh, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch clearly have a vision for this team, and we’ll really get to see what it looks like now.