The San Francisco 49ers have remained healthy by NFL standards during three straight runs deep into the postseason, but face some injury questions going forward. With the combine upon us, it's time to ponder how these injuries will affect the team's plans for May's draft.
It starts with inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who suffered ACL and MCL tears to his left knee in the NFC Championship Game. Bowman had surgery early this month and could be in line to return at the beginning of the regular season assuming flawless rehabilitation in the meantime. Otherwise, San Francisco is more likely to wait and start him off on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he would have to miss at least the first six games of the season.
"We're going to take a hard look to see if we need to infuse a little more competition into that position," general manager Trent Baalke said Friday in Indianapolis at the combine. "The No. 1 thing regarding NaVorro is he's 100 percent before bringing him back. He's not an individual, nor is any individual on our football team going to be rushed into action. When he's ready to go, he's ready to go. And if that's mid-season, middle-to-late part of the season, whenever that is, that's when we'll bring him back to the field."
The 49ers have a contingency plans to replace the defensive player of the year candidate in Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody, who both played safety in college before moving to linebacker permanently in the NFL. Wilhoite started two games last season for the injured Patrick Willis early in the year, combining to make 15 tackles in Weeks 4 and 5 against the Rams and Texans. If Bowman starts on the PUP list, it opens up a potential roster spot for another linebacker.
Moody was active for just four games during his rookie season and suffered a hand injury in the season opener against Green Bay. When he did play, he was limited to special teams after getting a lot of run in the preseason.
The 49ers drafted Moody because of his athleticism and what he brought to the special teams units while at Florida State. He was taken in the sixth round while Wilhoite went undrafted out of Washburn in 2011.
The timetable for Bowman's return remains in question after tearing two knee ligaments in Seattle (Getty Images).
"Both have done a nice job," Baalke said. "Nick's obviously a young guy, still developing at the linebacker position. And Michael Wilhoite's a guy that has stepped in and played well when called upon. We're going to address that."
Bowman and Patrick Willis are inked through 2016 and 2018 respectively and are undoubtedly the 49ers' two most important players on defense going forward. But it remains to be seen whether or not the 49ers are comfortable enough with Wilhoite and Moody to refrain from taking a linebacker.
Perhaps Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov would be a fit in the middle rounds.
Scout's Prospect Rankings for Inside Linebackers in the 2014 Draft
Given the talent on the team's roster headed into 2013, a number of rookies were largely unheard from during the year. Marcus Lattimore (fourth round), Tank Carradine (second round) and Quinton Dial (fifth round) were either used sparingly or not at all, which essentially gives the 49ers two rookie classes to develop this summer.
Carradine recently underwent a procedure to remove scar tissue from his knee, which inhibited its flexibility. He suffered an ACL tear in final collegiate game at Florida State, dropping his draft stock from a potential first-round pick to the second. He was on the active roster for a few weeks during the regular season, but was unable to move up the depth chart and was placed on injured reserve towards the end of the year.
"Tank's in a good place. He really is. He's worked awfully hard. Tank's, I think, pushing 290 pounds right now. He's had a great offseason," Baalke said. "We expect big things from Tank."
Starters Justin Smith and Ray McDonald both have birthdays in September, turning 35 and 30 respectively. That means plenty of eyes will be on Carradine to become a productive member of the defensive line in 2014 while likely competing with Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie. The 49ers still have just under three months to evaluate Carradine's physical shape before deciding on drafting another defensive lineman. There isn't an immediate need there, but with aging starters, it will be worth considering.
Michael Crabtree is entering the final year of his rookie deal in 2014 (Getty Images).
It's seems like a yearly tradition for 49ers fans to be evaluating the receiver position at the top of the draft. And despite having one of the most productive duos (when healthy) in years, Anquan Boldin is a free agent while Michael Crabtree enters a contract year, hoping to fully regain his speed after missing 11 games while recovering from a torn Achilles.
San Francisco is working hard to bring Boldin back without sacrificing too much cap space with 2015 in mind, but his return is not guaranteed. The team will have a better idea of Boldin's future in the coming weeks (they have exclusive negotiating rights until March 8), but still need to look at the future of the position. Considering Crabtree's injury history, his long-term future with the 49ers isn't a sure thing either.
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That's why many are pegging the 49ers to look for their future franchise wideout this season. They tried and failed in the first round of 2012 when taking A.J. Jenkins, who couldn't last into his second season with San Francisco before getting traded to Kansas City for Jon Baldwin in August.
Last year's draft will be known as the "Red Shirt" draft players missing time in their first pro seasons. But with injuries to incumbents this year, the 49ers can't afford to have the same outlook this time around.
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