NaVorro Bowman’s Achilles is repaired, and so is his outlook on the 49ers defense.
“Coach has done a great job expressing that I’ll have a lot of fun in this defense,” Bowman said as the 49ers offseason program got underway Monday.
Bowman last lined up on defense for a game in Week 4 last season. He ruptured his left Achilles tendon against the Dallas Cowboys and watched the season spiral into a 2-14 disaster, complete with a 13-game losing streak.
“I mentioned to the guys (Monday) I’m hungry,” Bowman said. “Any accomplishments I’ve had before, none of that matter. I’m out to prove myself to get back to that level.”
He’ll attempt that in a brand-new scheme under Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons.
Saleh inherits a defense that allowed the most points and touchdowns in 49ers history, as well as the most rushing yards.
“Moving forward, stopping the run is our number one priority,” Saleh said. “The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players, we will stop the run on this defense.”
What is the ideal demeanor?
“Extreme physicality,” Saleh answered.
Bowman, who missed the 2014 season because of knee reconstruction, spoke highly of a scheme that’s proven successful for NFC cohorts Seattle and Atlanta. While it’s known for an eight-man front and a single-high safety, the scheme will mean Bowman is basically responsible for one gap rather than two for the first time in his career.
“Coaches understand what I can do and they’re making it likeable for me,” Bowman said. “That’s always exciting knowing I’ll be able to play my best and have a great scheme to play in.”
The 49ers can no and will not rely solely on Bowman’s comeback.
On the defensive line, Saleh lauded the versatility of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, the 49ers’ top picks in the previous two drafts.
“They are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to to work,” Saleh said.
Buckner showed tremendous versatility and improvement in his rookie year, and he expects to line up as the “big end” — or the “six technique” — where he’d often match up inside the tight end. Tank Carradine is also seen as a backup option at that spot.
Armstead is so versatile that Saleh could envision him splitting out as an edge rusher if needed. “He’s not a prototype, but he’s capable just from his flexibility,” Saleh said.
Pivotal to the scheme is the “Leo” position, reserved for their premier pass rusher, and that is where Aaron Lynch is slated to mimic such players as the Seahawks’ Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Dante Fowler and the Atlanta Falcons’ Vic Beasley. Those were some examples listed by Saleh, along with the Raiders Khalil Mack, the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller and former 49ers star Charles Haley.
“We’re going to try to keep (Lynch’s) hand in the ground at all times,” Saleh said. “A couple years ago, when he came out of the draft, we were looking at him as a possible Leo. So, he has all the traits that you would like.”
Other options there are Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson.
In the secondary, the 49ers will try converting Jimmie Ward to their single-high safety, although both Saleh and coach Kyle Shanahan noted that Ward could remain at cornerback if that is where he fits best for the team. Eric Reid, a former first-round draft pick entering the final year of his contract, is seen by Saleh as “more of a box safety for sure” in that he’ll play closer to the line of scrimmage.
Releasing starting cornerback Tramaine Brock, in the wake of a domestic-violence arrest, intensifies a need at that position but Shanahan does not want it to sway their draft plan.
“Going into this draft, I don’t look at any position as more important than the other,” Shanahan said. “We’re trying to improve at every single position on our team and we were doing that at corner before this happened and now we’re definitely still doing it after.”
When Shanahan was asked about Bowman’s potential role in the new scheme, the first-year coach deferred to Saleh, a first-time coordinator who’s never before called plays.
“You’ve got to ask the defensive guru,” Shanahan said of Saleh.
That guru has made a favorable first impression on Buckner.
“I like him a lot,” Buckner said of Saleh. “He talked about the style of defense he wants us to be, to attack the ball and get extreme violence. Have all gaps and no breaks. It’s a new year, a fresh start and we’re all excited to get out there working.”
Fueling that work will be the constant reminder of last year’s 32nd-ranked defense in points and yards allwowed.
“It’s the last time we want to be mentioned as the 32nd team in the league,” Buckner said. “Everybody is pumped up, juiced and ready to go. There will be more accountability this year among ourselves and more consistency.”
Added Bowman: “Guys have to understand we are pros and we have to be accountable to one another on and off the field. The 49ers organization is first-class first, and you have to remember that when you’re inside this building and outside.”