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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

49ers won’t take it easy on NaVorro Bowman in preseason

Jul 2, 2017 at 10:17 AM--

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If you thought that the San Francisco 49ers might take it easy on All-Pro veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman during the team's exhibition games, then first-time general manager John Lynch wants you to know that will not happen.

Bowman has taken the majority of the practice snaps on defense during the 49ers' offseason program. So far, the 49ers have been impressed with what they have seen on the practice field considering it was in October that a torn Achilles limited Bowman's 2016 season to just four games. The injury came nearly 13 months after Bowman's return to the football field from gruesome ACL and MCL tears.

Bowman will be playing within an entirely new defensive scheme and his role will be different than it has been throughout his career. Despite that, he remains the favorite to win a starting job in the middle of the defense. That doesn't mean that the job will simply be handed to Bowman. Nor would the 29-year-old linebacker expect it to be. After all, it is a crowded competition.

Offseason practices without pads won't give you the full picture. Training camp practices with pads might tell you more. But the 49ers are eager to fully test Bowman in live action and see how he holds up within Robert Saleh's Seattle Seahawks-style defense.

Bowman will have less space in the middle since the plan is to fill the gaps and attack the run. After all, the 49ers defense was ranked dead-last against the run last year allowing a franchise-record 2,654 yards to opposing running backs. They didn't only break the record for rushing yards allowed, they shattered it. The previous record had been 2,365 rushing yards allowed, which was set in 1978. The 49ers defense jumped past that mark with two games remaining on its schedule.

Lynch joined "Gary and Larry" on KNBR this past week and discussed the linebacker competition, how Bowman has looked during the offseason, and the team's plans to fully evaluate the linebacker during the preseason.

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"That's going to be a real competitive position I think when you throw he, Malcolm Smith, Reuben Foster, and Ray-Ray Armstrong," Lynch said. "That stack linebacker – and Brock Coyle's another guy who's done it up in Seattle. NaVorro's really having a great offseason. He's got to continue that.

"He's come back from two really tough injuries to come back from and be at full speed but I can tell you that we've been very pleasantly surprised with the way he's moving around out here. And then you wonder, okay, I always remember NaVorro as a 3-4 linebacker, a guy who's at his best when he's blitzing the quarterback and all these things. Not that that's not part of this scheme, but we're going to be asking him to do a lot of backing up in zone coverage and go attack. Is that going to fit his skills? He's making a real strong case for himself by the way he's working out here, by the way he's leading out here and we're excited.

"In the preseason, we expect to play him. He'll get some vet days as a guy who needs some days off during camp, but I think the schedule takes care of that itself these days. It's not like it's two-a-days anymore. It's a grind. They take care of these guys pretty well. We'll take care of him and he'll be playing in preseason. We need to see what we have as a team, and NaVorro's a part of that, and we're excited to have him."

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In May, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan acknowledged that a talented linebacker will likely be watching from the sidelines during games this season.

"In my opinion, there's going to be a very good player that's not out there all the time and that's not a bad thing," Shanahan said. "That makes the two guys that are out there go a lot harder and play better. It makes your special teams better and it allows you to survive injuries which almost always happen."

What does Bowman think of the offseason competition as others attempt to seize his defensive snaps? He sounds unfazed by it.

"I won't be on the sideline, I'm going to tell you that now," Bowman said in May.

If by some chance Bowman doesn't win the starting job, he would be an awfully expensive backup. A year ago, the 49ers gave him a four-year extension that runs through 2022 and will have Bowman count an average of $9.9 million against the cap in each of the next six seasons. Of course, it is unlikely that Bowman fulfills all of the remaining years of that lengthy contract, but he'll still be on the books for a massive amount of money while he is with the 49ers – assuming that contract is not restructured at some point.

When he is on the football field, Bowman has been very productive for the team. Through the first four games of last season, he had 35 tackles, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, and two passes defended. While his 251 snaps were a limited sample size, Bowman ended up as the team's highest-graded player in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus.

In 2015, he was in on 1,126 defensive snaps. 627 of those were against the pass while 499 were against the run. During that time, Bowman compiled 154 tackles – which led the league – 2.5 sacks, and two passes defended.

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