San Francisco 49ers

Bye-bye, Bowman: 49ers cut last remaining link to their recent defensive glory years

NaVorro Bowman speaks to the media in June at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The 49ers’ four-time All-Pro linebacker was released Friday. He was drafted in 2010 and played his entire career with the 49ers.
NaVorro Bowman speaks to the media in June at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The 49ers’ four-time All-Pro linebacker was released Friday. He was drafted in 2010 and played his entire career with the 49ers. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

NaVorro Bowman, who closed out Candlestick Park with an interception for a touchdown and who has been the heart of San Francisco’s defense in recent years, no longer is a 49er.

The team released him Friday after he and his agent expressed frustration over Bowman being sent to the sideline during portions of Sunday’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Bowman has played more snaps than any other NFL linebacker this season and coaches said they wanted to keep him fresh.

General manager John Lynch said the team tried to trade the four-time All Pro – “A couple of teams were very interested,” he said – but that Bowman, 29, and agent Drew Rosenhaus wanted a crack at signing with a team of their own choosing. So they released him and made him a free agent.

“I thought it would help Bo out to play at a higher level if we took him out a couple of series throughout a game,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of the decision to rotate him with other linebackers. “I thought it would help save his legs more, give him the energy and the bursts that he needed to play in the scheme. And he respectfully disagreed.”

Bowman originally was a third-round pick in the 2010 draft. He became a starter the following season and, along with Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, helped lead the 49ers to the NFC championship game. Now every defensive player from that era is gone. Bowman had been the second-longest tenured 49er behind tackle Joe Staley.

Bowman’s break-up of a pass at the end of the 2012 NFC championship game sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl that season. A year later, again in the conference championship, he suffered a grisly knee injury that washed out his 2014 season.

He returned the following year after a grueling rehabilitation and led the NFL in tackles. Last year, however, he suffered another season-ending injury, an Achilles tear, and missed most of the season.

Before his injuries, Bowman was considered one of the top inside linebackers in the NFL. He currently leads the team in tackles, but his lateral quickness and his ability to cover opposing pass catchers appears to have been compromised by his recent injuries. Shanahan declined to compare Bowman’s 2017 form to earlier versions of the linebacker.

“I thought he does a solid job,” Shanahan said. “He had some games that were better than others. I think Bo would tell you guys that pretty honestly, too. I think everyone knows he struggled a little bit versus the Rams, but I think everyone did with short rest and played a ton of plays, but I think he had a very good game versus Seattle and he did some good things for us.”

Bowman’s replacement already is on the roster. The 49ers used a first-round pick in April on linebacker Reuben Foster, who is just now coming back from an ankle injury. Although Foster has primarily trained at weak-side linebacker, the 49ers see him as a natural fit at middle linebacker, which was Bowman’s spot.

Next year, for example, the plan is for Foster to line up at middle linebacker and for Malcolm Smith, who is currently on injured reserve, to play the weak-side linebacker spot.

As for Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins, the 49ers aren’t sure how much Foster, who is listed as questionable, will play. It’s possible that Brock Coyle will start at middle linebacker and Ray-Ray Armstrong will play the weak-side spot with Foster getting eased back into the lineup.

“Once he’s fully going and back in the flow of things – which I can’t promise you that’ll be this Sunday – but as soon as he is, (middle linebacker) will be his spot,” Shanahan said.

The 49ers have two more inside linebackers on the roster, Elijah Lee and Mark Nzeocha.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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