It wouldn't be off base to call NaVorro Bowman a medical miracle. However, that label would do a disservice to the work he's put into his return to form. In 2015, the San Francisco 49ers linebacker returned from a knee injury to lead the NFL with 154 tackles. He's eyeing something similar again this season.
After an Achilles tear cost Bowman the majority of his 2016 campaign, the linebacker is already back to full-speed during the team's offseason program. But don't color any of his teammates surprised. It's just, "'Bow' being 'Bow'," as many of them put it this week.
"I'm a man of challenges," Bowman said. "I overcome whatever comes on my plate. When I go down, it's up to me whether or not I get back up.
"Injuries are part of the game, but I've done everything I've needed to do to get back to where I am today. I'm ahead of schedule. I don't feel anything in my Achilles or my knee. Guys can see that out there on the field."
Kyle Shanahan also reiterated that Bowman looks like the linebacker he's seen on tape. However, a clean bill of health was just the first hurdle for Bowman to clear in 2017. In addition to his rigorous physical rehab, he's being challenged with mastering a new defensive system.
Bowman has thrived as an inside linebacker in San Francisco's 3-4 defense since 2010. This season will be his first in a 4-3 scheme. Unsurprisingly, the linebacker says he's enjoying his new role in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's one-gap scheme.
"I like it, I like it a lot," Bowman said. "I'm able to fly around to the ball and make the plays that I know I will."
But Bowman will have to earn his keep, just like every other player on the roster. Shanahan made it clear that, "Nobody is locked in at anything." Granted, established NFL veterans like Bowman and Joe Staley will have a clearer path to earning a starting job, they'll still have to prove it on the practice field all the same.
San Francisco added depth at linebacker with free agents Malcolm Smith and Brock Coyle. Ray-Ray Armstrong has returned from injury, and the team used the 31st overall pick on Reuben Foster. Shanahan told reporters that the 49ers will have a good linebacker who isn't in the starting lineup come the fall. Still, Bowman's confidence remains steadfast.
"I won't be on the sideline, let me tell you that right now," Bowman said. "I'm committed to being the best linebacker I can be."
Shanahan called Bowman out of respect after the 49ers selected Foster.
"It was good to hear from him, to see that he had something to say and an idea of what he wanted to get across from me," Bowman said, adding that he's excited to play with the rookie. "Foster is bright. He's definitely smart and has a lot more to learn. He's a good guy in my book, and it's exciting to have him on our team."
Bowman didn't want the phone call with Shanahan to last long, though, acknowledging that his head coach owed him nothing. Competition is part of the job description, even as a four-time All-Pro.
"I'll compete with anyone – whether they're 21 or 35. It doesn't matter," Bowman said. "I'm a guy who's going to give my best effort. I have full confidence in my ability to play this game. I know how much I study this game, and I know how good I am."
When you're out at practice, it's still readily apparent that No. 53 is still calling the shots on defense. Other's go as he goes. So while specific roles are far from concrete, "Bow" continues to be "Bow".
"It's always great to lead guys and be an example of how you should work and how you should play," he said. "The last couple years have been rough so we're trying to bring back that identity."