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The 49ers have a plethora of guys coming back from injury this year. Year after year, we as 49er fans always seem to have a rash of injuries that hamper our starters. It's time to take a look at some impact players returning this year who were forced to miss substantial time last season. The list is in order from most impactful to least impactful returns. While you may not agree with the particular rankings, one thing is for sure, this team needed the offseason to rehab some key guys. Note all of the ACL injuries.
1. Navorro Bowman
Even if we weren't blindsided by the retirements of Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, Bowman would have still topped this list. Now, Bowman is in another stratosphere when it comes to importance to this team. Statistically, Bowman had a bigger impact on our defense than Willis did in 2013. Bowman recorded 120 total tackles in 2013, compared to Willis' 80. True, Willis played in two fewer games than Bowman, but even if you subtract Bowman's total tackles from the two games Willis missed, Bowman would still account for 104, well ahead of Willis' 80. Additionally, since coming into the league in 2010, Bowman has played Mike linebacker, or strong-side linebacker. This often means the linebacker playing Mike must be ready to stop the run and call defensive plays, which is what Bowman has excelled in since his arrival in 2010. In 2013, when Bowman played in all 16 games, the 49ers finished the year fifth in total defense, and fourth in run defense. The 49ers stayed fifth in total defense in 2014, but gave up 5 YPG more than the 2013 campaign. More importantly, the 49ers gave up 5 YPG more on the ground in 2014 than they did in 2013. Yes, Willis didn't play for the majority of the 2014 season, but he did play in the first six games, and it's still an alarming stat that speaks to the importance of Bowman when it comes to stopping the run. Perhaps more important than anything that could be measured by numbers is leadership, the most important intangible in football. Prior to March 10, Patrick Willis was the spiritual leader of the defense, and the team. Now, that void needs to be filled by Bowman, at least on the defensive side.
The good news is that Bowman seems to be on schedule when it comes to his rehabilitation. If you follow Bowman on Instagram, you've most likely seen videos of him doing springs, deadlifts, and lunges with some serious weight on his shoulders. All encouraging signs that physically, he may be able to return to his Pro Bowl form.
2. Tramaine Brock
Brock ranks so high on this list not based on his own ability, but the lack of talent and depth at corner for the 49ers. Brock's absence helped former 49ers DBs Chris Culliver and PerrishCox land gaudy deals elsewhere, but let's compare the backs, and see who has more of an impact. In 2013, Brock emerged as the feature corner, despite starting the season behind TarellBrown and Carlos Rogers. In sixteen games, Brock logged 35 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 13 passes defended. Compare that to Culliver's 2014 campaign where he ended the season with 38 total tackles, 4 interceptions, and 15 passes defended, in fourteengames. In fifteen games alternating between outside and nickel corner, Perrish Cox recorded 49 total tackles, 5 interceptions, and 18 passes defended. It seems that Cox and Culliver's 2014 numbers either mirror or surpass Brock's 2013 numbers. However, as stated earlier, Brock isn't this high on the list for his ability, but for the lack of talent at the position. With Cox and Culliver both long gone from the Bay Area, here's to hoping Brock can either mirror or surpass his 2013 numbers, or demand that the opposing quarterback look to his second receiver.
3. Chris Cook
Similar to Brock, Cook isn't number three based solely on talent, but because of how thin the Niners are at corner, even more so because the Niners failed to draft a corner with one of their 10 picks in the draft. Cook will never be a shutdown corner by any means, as shown by his time with the Vikings. However, based on where the 49ers stand at the position in 2015, Cook needs to be a solid outside corner, particularly if teams shy away from throwing towards Tramaine Brock and if Dontae Johnson falls below Cook on the depth chart. Before Cook went down in 2014, he was on the field for 19 snaps in Week 6, and 5 snaps in Week 7, while Dontae Johnson had 23 snaps in Week 6, and 37 snaps in Week 7. Taking into account the snap differential before the injury, and Cook's actual injury, it seems that Dontae Johnson is hot on Cook's rear end on the depth chart. It's hard to tell where Cook stands on the depth chart today, with Fangio gone, and Dontae Johnson's rise. My best guess tells me that Tomsula and Mangini will start Cook over Johnson, across the field from Brock in Week 1, barring any setbacks to Cook, or any flashes of brilliance from Johnson in camp. However, if Cook doesn't impress during Week 1, expect to see Johnson as the permanent starter. The Niners did sign Shareece Wright in the offseason, but I see him getting minimal playing time due to his league high 9 pass interference penalties last season. Wright will have a chance to compete for a spot during camp, but he faces long odds to stay on with Jim "Penalty" Harbaugh gone, you can bet the mortgage that Tomsula & Co. are going to make cutting back on flags a key issue during camp. Other than Johnson, the only corner that could possibly challenge Cook is Keith Reaser. He suffered a torn ACL in college during the 2013 season, and has been rehabbing the injury since being drafted in 2014.
T4. Glenn Dorsey
Dorsey is in the number 4 spot based off his 2013 campaign. While the 49ers play an unconventional 3-4, and predicate their pass rush based off their OLBs, Dorsey offers versatility on the defensive line. A feel good story, Dorsey came in as the reserve defensive lineman, behind Ian Williams, and ended up taking over the starting role when Williams went down with a broken ankle in Week 2 of the 2013 season. Dorsey did well plugging up the middle, helping the Niners become another top 5 defense in the NFL. He recorded 41 tackles, and 2 sacks. I have him ranked evenly with Williams primarily based off his 2013 performance, even though he bottomed out of Kansas City, where he was selected as a top 5 pick in 2008. Despite Justin Smith's retirement being in limbo, the 49ers are still stacked on the defensive line, with Quinton Dial, Darnell Docket, and Tank Carradine. Out of the bunch, Tomsula seems to be very high on Quinton Dial, as he was quoted "And you talk about those two nose guards with Ian and Dorsey, I'd dare say to you, when you watched Quinton Dial toward the end of last year, that was a pretty dad-gum good nose guard. I see him more as an end, but he sure does have NFL snaps on game day as a starting nose guard that are really good." I expect to see Dorsey and Williams split time at NT during the first week or two of the season, and each player's performance will determine their time on the field after that.
T4. Ian Williams
I couldn't put Williams ahead of Dorsey, because we just haven't seen enough of a sample size from him yet. Since being drafted in 2011, Williams has only appeared in 15 games. He was named the starter in 2013, but broke his ankle in Week 2, and Glenn Dorsey filled in better than anyone expected. Williams was also pegged the starter in 2014, and played well in nine games before again sustaining an injury, this time a fractured leg. PFF has Glenn Dorsey ranked higher than Williams, and has him starting over Williams heading into the 2015 season, but it's still too early to tell. It's still unknown where Williams and Dorsey are at in their rehab process—that could go a long way into giving us a Week 1 starter.
5. Vance McDonald
Vance cracks the top 5 mostly due to the regression of Vernon Davis last year. Vernon only caught 52% of passes thrown to him last year, with a 10% drop rate. Compare that to 2013, where Davis caught 62% of passes thrown his way, with a mere 4% drop rate. The most alarming fact about all of the drops from 2014 is that many of them happened with simply no one around Vernon. Davis' real weapon is his blazing speed, but at 31, with declining speed, pedestrian catching numbers just a season ago, and a contract that runs out after 2015, one has to wonder how long Davis will be kept around in the Bay Area. Blake Bell takes some of the pressure of McDonald picking up Davis' slack, but he is still an unknown commodity at the NFL level. The problem with McDonald is twofold: he drops a lot of passes, and struggles to block outside linebackers. In a lot of ways, he brings to the table what Vernon does, or did, which is stellar athletic ability. You have to think the Niners will give McDonald a chance at significant playing time this upcoming season, since Baalke moved up six spots to take Vance with the 55th overall pick in the 2013 Draft. If McDonald can sure up his hands, and improve his blocking, he has a chance to oust Davis as the feature TE in Geep Chryst's offense. One thing is for sure, with the abundance of TEs on the Niners roster, if McDonald and Davis both fail to improve from last season, expect Bell, Celek, and Carrier to take advantage of any opportunities that come their way.
6. Daniel Kilgore
While he has shown flashes of promise, Kilgore has never taken the punishment of a sixteen game season. He needs to continue to develop and focus on staying healthy.
7. Kendall Hunter
Hunter would have cracked the top 5 if it wasn't for the signing of Reggie Bush. Expect Hyde to be the feature back for the Niners, but Hunter and Bush will battle for playing time behind Hyde. Both provide explosive speed, but both have similar injury concerns.
8. Jimmie Ward
Ward was getting burned big time last year, so maybe his injury is a blessing in disguise. He still needs to develop, and with the departure of Cox, the Niners most likely expect Ward to get some time in at nickel corner. However, don't expect him to stay in that role if he doesn't improve off of last season.
9. Garrett Celek
If Davis and McDonald continue to consistently drop passes, expect Celek to get some significant playing time alongside rookie Blake Bell. Celek has been with the Niners since 2012, and with the promotion of Chryst from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, Celek has the advantage over Bell when it comes to familiarity with the offense.
10. Keith Reaser
Perhaps a forgotten pick of the 49ers, Reaser reportedly ran a 4.3 forty, per Mike Mayock, during a spring game in college. He brings intrigue, and could possibly step up to nickel corner if he improves his coverage and Ward continues to show no improvement.
11. Kaleb Ramsey
Spoils of war from the Kentawn Balmer trade. I think getting Balmer off the team itself is worthy of making this list. In all seriousness, Ramsey is a guy that showed flashes in college, but he's another one that is recovering from an ACL injury, and is buried in the depth chart behind a stacked defensive line.
12. Trey Millard
I doubt he will be on the roster for Week 1, but if Miller gets into more legal trouble, expect Millard to get a chance.