Replacing Bowman could be complicated, or not

Michael Wilhoite (Getty Images)

The 49ers know they won't be able to replace what NaVorro Bowman brings to the defense as he continues to recover from his knee injury. But thanks to a deep and multifaceted group of inside linebackers, coordinator Vic Fangio could do some mixing and matching.

There could be a multitude of ways the San Francisco 49ers could go about replacing NaVorro Bowman. Or one guy could take the job. The depth at the position provides a lot of possibilities.

Given the varying skill sets of the team’s reserve inside linebackers, mixing at matching could make a lot of sense. To borrow from a baseball term, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could look for the “platoon advantage” to attempt to replace the All-Pro - who is likely to miss at least the first six games of the regular season after suffering an ACL tear in last season’s NFC Championship Game.

In Fangio’s 3-4 scheme, inside linebackers play very similar roles. But the positions of “Jack” and “Mike” have their own unique qualities. Last year, Bowman played the Jack, which blitzes more and is given more free reign to make plays. The Mike is typically responsible for the inside gaps along the offensive line and controlling the middle of the field.

To be sure, those descriptions are very broad strokes. The Mike and Jack could often switch based on the offensive formation - or which side the tight end lines up in particular. The other variable is the personnel package. Responsibilities change drastically when the defense goes to nickel and dime.

”You might be doing the exact same thing regardless. But at the same time as a linebacker, you got to be able to get off blocks and got to be able to tackle the ball carrier. In the end it all comes down to making a play on the ball,” Michael Wilhoite said.

For now, Wilhoite - who replaced Patrick Willis (at Mike) early last season while he was out with a broken hand during training camp and then a groin injury in Weeks 3 and 4 - is primarily working with the first team as the Jack in base situations. Willis has been playing the Mike again so far in training camp, but it’s still very early in the process.

"We’ve got any type of possibility that can happen there,” Fangio said. "If somebody surfaces…give us a better combination of putting Willis back at Jack and somebody else at Mike, whether it’d be (Chris) Borland, Wilhoite, (Shayne) Skov, Nick Moody is in the mix there, too. He’s playing just Jack, so, at some point we know Willis is going to be in there and he can play either spot and we’ll put the next best guy in there."

The interchangeability of Bowman and Willis is part of what makes the duo so effective. On any given play, both can handle the responsibilities of both inside positions at elite levels. One of the challenges of replacing Bowman will be coming up with ways to replicate that versatility.

That’s where the thought of a platoon system could come into play. Borland played Mike primarily at Wisconsin. And given that he doesn’t have elite speed to cover tight ends, he may be better suited to play there in base situations, whereas former safeties Wilhoite and Moody could be used in nickel because of their ability to cover.

"Without seeing (Borland) a whole lot more, I think that’s what he’s more suited for at this point," Fangio said. "And I think it might be a position that suits him the best, but I’m not sure of that yet.

"Basically, when I look at insider linebackers, me personally, if you’re an inside linebacker you’re an inside linebacker. You’re an off-the-ball linebacker, in comparison with our outside linebackers who are on-the-ball linebackers. So, if you’re an off-the-ball linebacker, you can play either spot. Now, there are different assignments and techniques that go into each position, and one position has more of a load in one assignment than the other and vice versa. So, you try and narrow it down, but they should be able to play both."

The one thing that’s certain is Willis will be on the field at all times. And his versatility allows him to play both positions. So mixing and matching other players alongside him looks like a real possibility.

"Willis will be in there and whichever one’s best will be in there," Fangio said. "And it could be a combination just like we did when Aldon (Smith) was out last year, you know, (Dan) Skuta played in one package and (Corey) Lemonier played in another. You can see, whether it’d be an inside linebacker playing in base and one playing in the nickel that are two different guys, so. All possibilities are open."

Or, it could just be Wilhoite stepping into Bowman’s all pro-sized shoes. Time will tell.

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