In a somewhat surprising move, the San Francisco 49ers opted to release veteran linebacker NaVorro Bowman yesterday after reportedly failing to find a trade partner for him. Seeing a high-profile defender hit the open market midway through the season naturally sparks the question: Should the New England Patriots try to pursue him to add talent to their ailing defense?
Early in his career, Bowman was among the best linebackers in the NFL. The 2010 third round draft pick was an every-down defender, who was stout against the run, offered sideline-to-sideline speed and was an able coverage player. The 6'0, 240 lbs Penn State product was the whole package and the heart and soul of San Francisco's defense – one that earned multiple Pro Bowl and All Pro distinctions for his play.
Past accolades do not matter in the NFL, though, as Bowman's release shows. The 29-year old missed all of 2014 due to an ACL and MCL tear sustained in the 2013 NFC title game. He also ended his 2016 campaign on injured reserve with an Achilles tear. While he returned to the field this season, Bowman no longer appears to be the standout player he used to be in the early 2010s.
However, that does not mean that he won't be able to help other teams now that he is an unrestricted free agent. While injuries have taken their toll and his physical skills are no longer as impressive as they were a few years ago, Bowman still brings smarts, top-notch instincts, experience and leadership to the table. Or, to compare him to a current member of the Patriots: He offers the same basic skill-set as David Harris (also in terms of being a non-factor in the kicking game).
For New England, the question therefore has to be whether Bowman is an upgrade over Harris or any of the other linebackers on the team. Harris is joined by defensive captain Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Harvey Langi as the Patriots' linebacker corps. Hightower and Van Noy won't go anywhere, while Roberts and Flowers both see regular playing time on defense and special teams, respectively.
This leaves two candidates who might become expendable in case Bowman is brought aboard: Langi and Harris, who have both seen uneven playing time this season. With Langi a high-upside rookie that is basically being redshirted by the team, Harris seems like the logical player whose spot might be in jeopardy if the team opts to go after the former 49er. After all, he has played only seven snaps this season and while praised for his leadership does currently not appear to be a part of the team's defensive plans.
But even in case New England wants to keep Harris and the rest of the linebackers as they currently are – and there are no indications that they won't (at least until Shea McClellin completes his expected return from injured reserve) –, Bowman could still fit on the team. Releasing the fifth offensive tackle, Cole Croston, might be a way to go or moving on from running back Brandon Bolden or defensive edge Geneo Grissom.
Space should not be the issue, neither should be money. As part of his contract and termination payout, Bowman will receive a guaranteed $6.75 million this season that is still paid by his former team. Consequently, he could sign a one-year veteran contract (which would pay him a base salary of $900,000) and not lose anything financially. The Patriots, they of $4.96 million in salary cap space would likely not offer much more than that for a player who would not be much more than a rotational piece of the offense.
This brings us back to a point already quickly mentioned when it comes to assessing potentially picking up Bowman: What does he actually offer the Patriots in terms of on-field value? Schematically, he would be a fit on the interior of New England's standard 5-1 front – a role typically played by Hightower, Van Noy and Roberts, depending on the who lines up on the line of scrimmage.
However, the 29-year old would likely not be an upgrade over either as he is no longer the standout defender he used to be. While Bowman is still solid against the run, he has struggled in coverage this season and allowed 11 of 13 passes thrown his way to be completed for 113 yards and a touchdown. So, no, he would not be the savior of New England's defense. That being said, he could still be useful in a specialized role and when not asked to play 90+% of defensive snaps.
Ultimately it might come down to this: Do the Patriots feel like using Bowman in a reduced role as a primary run defender might help them defensively? If the question is yes – and based on the veteran's 2017 season so far, it would not be a surprise if it is –, the team should at least give Bowman's agent a call.