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49ers preview: Bowman brings hope for defense

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Around The NFL's season preview goes to the NFC West.

Change we can believe in


Do you believe in bidding farewell to an uber-talented coach and countless core players? Neither do we. The Niners have been dismantled, putting plenty of pressure on new coach Jim Tomsula to keep the ship afloat. That won't be easy with so many big names -- Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and Michael Crabtree -- out the door.

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The return of linebacker NaVorro Bowman, though, brings hope. Coming off a missed season due to an ACL tear, the veteran defender has been dominant this preseason, recording a game-high nine tackles and two sacks this past weekend against the Broncos. Looming as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Bowman will also battle Sam Bradford all season for Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Biggest Concern


For years under Jim Harbaugh, this offensive line was a fierce unit that blew open holes for Gore and kept quarterback Colin Kaepernick upright. The loss of Iupati and Davis, though, has turned this position group into a weakness for an attack already missing the requisite skill-position talent to keep pace in the West. It's too early to judge the Niners, but their once-rugged identity has been stripped away.

Tomsula's ability to navigate a difficult season also remains an unknown. Players will watch to see how their new coach handles every situation. Instead of taking over a talent-laden roster, Tomsula's cupboard is bare. It could get ugly fast if the Niners tumble out of the gate before an agitated fan base.

Training camp surprise


This one's easy: Former Rugby League star Jarryd Hayne has emerged as a preseason darling, frying defenders for runs of 53 and 34 yards and serving as a talented return man with eye-popping skills in the open field. He owns a legitimate shot to catch on with the 53-man roster. If the Niners pass on Hayne, another team will pounce on this exciting prospect.

What we'll be saying in February


Someone had to finish last in the West. It was clear from the start that San Francisco was destined for the role.

Predicted finish: No. 4 in NFC West, No. 13 in the NFC, No. 25 overall in Around The NFL's Power Poll

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