Larry Grant

Could NaVorro Bowman be even better than Patrick Willis in 2012?

Now that Patrick Willis is no longer standing underneath the “Madden Cover” anvil (Calvin Johnson got the cover, and the jinx, so we might not see him in uniform when the Detroit Lions come to San Francisco in Week 2), the chances he’ll have a standard Patrick Willis season (read: HOF-worthy) are pretty good.

Another guy you’d figure should have a pretty good season at middle linebacker: NaVorro Bowman, who had one of the quieter 1st-Team All-Pro seasons in recent memory. Some of that has to do with Bowman’s draft position (3rd round, 91st overall in 2010), as well as the fact that he was behind Takeo Spikes throughout 2010, his rookie season. So Bowman effectively came out of nowhere last year, at least in the minds of most football fans not closely following the 49ers.

While one could argue that Bowman — who played all 16 games to Willis’ 13 — had a better season than the 49ers’ marquee defensive player, the majority of football observers probably wouldn’t agree. Willis was a monster in 2011, a guy who due to outstanding seasons from Bowman and everyone on the defensive line was allowed to freelance more than ever before. While Bowman might have been the best run defender at his position of anyone in the NFL last season, one could make a good argument that Willis was the premier inside linebacker when it came to pass coverage. Willis does everything well, including rushing the quarterback (Bowman isn’t too shabby in that department, either).

Okay, enough stalling. Let’s get into the question in the headline, which many will probably find sacrilegious. Could Bowman actually be better than Willis in 2012? There are four reasons why it’s possible.

1. Durability

As Willis mentioned when I asked him about the Madden Curse a few weeks back, he’s dealt with his share of injuries over the past couple of years. After playing 16 games in each of his first three seasons, he played 15 games in 2010 and, as mentioned earler, missed three games last year. Since injuries can happen at any time, there’s a chance Bowman misses a game or three himself in 2012. However, if you’re strictly looking at trends, odds are Bowman will be available for more snaps than Willis next season.

2. Bowman’s age

According to Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” stat, Willis’ best season came in 2009. Willis was 24 that year. Bowman turned 24 at the end of March, and now instead of having to prove that he’s a quality NFL starter (I think he’s got that covered) he can take what he learned over 18 games last year and build on that in 2012. Willis’ game seems to change and grow every year, even now, so there’s a chance he could also be a better player in 2012 than he’s ever been. But Bowman’s ceiling is totally unknown at this point, and his improvement as a pass rusher as last season went along was undeniable. In Bowman’s last four games including the playoffs he had 2.5 sacks, after none in his first 14 games.

3. Bowman’s just fine on his own

One of the most impressive things about Bowman’s first full season was how he performed when Willis was unavailable. Larry Grant got a lot of the ink because he was Willis’ replacement and came up with some very memorable plays. It’s nice that Grant is back on the team for the upcoming season, but there’s no way he would’ve looked as good as he did playing next to a league average middle linebacker on another team (the d-line helped, too). Bowman allowed Willis to stretch his game in 2011 in ways that we didn’t see when Willis played with Spikes, and Bowman made Grant’s job of replacing Willis look surprisingly easy. Willis’ presence helps Bowman as well (who knows how much Willis has taught Bowman during practice and during film sessions), but my point is it was impressive that the defense didn’t seem to miss a beat without their future Hall-of-Fame linebacker. Before last season it was unimaginable that the 49ers would almost shut out the Steelers without Willis, but that’s what they did.

4. Willis got screwed by the schedule makers

Last year Willis faced some very good tight ends, including Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, Brandon Pettigrew, Jermaine Gresham, Kellen Winslow and Fred Davis. In 2012, Willis could be tasked with covering Graham, the Patriots’ duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Pettigrew, Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller. Not that Willis can’t do it, but covering guys like Graham and Gronknandez is a thankless job.

There are a couple things in Willis’ favor when we discuss who’ll be better next season. Willis has experienced what it’s like to come back from an All-Pro season and be expected to produce at an even higher level. Bowman hasn’t. Willis is the vocal leader of the defense, which inherently makes his role more important than Bowman’s. And it’s not like Willis is an old man — he’ll almost certainly still be the starter when the 49ers open up their new stadium. I’m just saying that the potential exists for the 49ers to have two future Hall-of-Fame linebackers on their roster, and if Bowman shines a little brighter than Willis next year (which I think is possible), it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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