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NaVorro Bowman’s rookie year was not one that grabbed Vic Fangio’s attention when he arrived at the 49ers, mainly because there was not a lot of game video of the linebacker.
Bowman saw limited playing time during the 2010 season as the back up for then starter Takeo Spikes.
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“He really didn’t play much the year before,” Fangio said. “All through that offseason, that was the lockout year, there was kind of an assumption that Takeo Spikes was going to come back here, and NaVorro basically probably would have been in the same role.”
Bowman felt he’d already been badly misjudged once since coming out of Penn State his junior year. Draft analysts lauded his speed, agility and tackling, but questioned his lack of size and character.
“If Bowman didn’t have the off-field issues and had less of an injury history, he could easily be an early second round selection and maybe slip into the bottom of Round 1,” wrote one scout on DraftBreakdown.com.
“He has a shot at being a top-20 pick because of his NFL ready speed and quickness,” wrote another scout on SB Nation. “The lack of size will likely be an issue for Bowman, however.”
The 49ers drafted Bowman near the end of the third round, 91 overall. Given the opportunity to prove himself to a new coordinator, Bowman gave Fangio no reason to doubt his work ethic and abilities or that the personal mistakes he made were left at State College.
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“He didn’t know who I was or what I can do," Bowman said. "Me being the player I am, I don’t like that. I expect to be known or know what I do.
“When he got here he mentioned the only persons that really had their spots were Pat [Willis] and Cowboy [Justin Smith]. That really shocked everyone else in the room. I took that as a challenge and just kept working.”
By the end of training camp, Fangio had no misconceptions.
“In retrospect it’s a good thing that Takeo didn’t come back here because he would have gotten beaten out by NaVorro,” Fangio said. Spikes left as a free agent and signed with the Chargers that year.
Named a starter, Bowman blew up. He led the team in tackles that first year under Fangio and every year since.
He’s been named a first team All Pro three times and to the Pro Bowl twice. He provided a highlight that became an instant classic, an 89 yard pick six that gave the 49ers the win over the Falcons in the last regular season game ever to be played at Candlestick Park.
This season, Bowman set career highs in total tackles (120), sacks (5), interceptions (2), passes defensed (8) and forced fumbles (4).
Bowman is in the middle of the conversation for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. He realizes having the stability of playing in Fangio’s system for three seasons plays a role in that.
“I think I understand him pretty well,” Bowman said. “Just his terminology, what he’s thinking when we are leading up to games, and things like that, and just putting into my game as a player, and I think it’s made me better.”
The Carolina Panthers will have their own Defensive Player of the Year candidate on the field this Sunday, middle linebacker Luke Keuchly. Like Bowman, they second-year player is known for his instincts, speed and ball skills. Bowman can appreciate another player’s skills, but he still takes every chance he gets to remind his coaches when they overlooked his.
“He still has a chip on his shoulder from a lot of these guys being drafted in front of him,” safety Donte Whitner said. “He lets Vic Fangio and the defensive staff know all the time, he’ll see a linebacker on film and he’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, you picked that guy ahead of me, too.’ That’s how we all play. We all play with a chip on our shoulder, especially NaVorro.”
That chip may drive Bowman, but the 25-year-old has reached the point in his career where he no longer worries about mistakes made on the field. Bowman doesn’t let past missteps get in the way of what he’s trying to accomplish for his future.
“I try to get better every single week, just don’t worry about anything that happened before. I just try to continue to get better every single week and understand that this is the NFL. They have playmakers on their team also. They’re going to make plays. You become great when you can get past those things, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”