Cautious optimism surrounding Bowman's return

The 49ers officially opened NaVorro Bowman's 21-day practice window, but questions about whether or not he returns this season remain.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - NaVorro Bowman will make his practice-field debut Tuesday, 303 days after tearing his left ACL and MCL in January's conference title game loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The 49ers officially opened his practice window, as was expected, which was a procedural move to make him eligible to return to the active roster at some point this season. If he is not added at the conclusion of the window Dec. 9, he will be shut down for the year.

While there's obvious excitement of getting a three-time first-team All-Pro back on the field, the optimism is cautious surrounding Bowman.

"I’ve seen him move around in drills and stuff like that, and he looked pretty good to me," Michael Wilhoite said Tuesday. "I’m sure it’s a situation where (Bowman) kind of just needs to do it, feel it, make sure everything’s good...I don’t know what his work load will be, or if he’ll practice at all or practices 100 percent. I’m just excited to have him back, I’m sure everybody is."

Reports from ESPN over the last week have indicated Bowman still feels pain in his surgically repaired knee and there's a "real possibility" he doesn't return this season for the betterment of his career longevity.

Fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis elected to forgo the remainder of the season to surgically repair his big left toe that he said had been ailing him for years. That decision, Wilhoite said, isn't likely to factor in Bowman's decision to return.

"I’m sure he can’t wait, I’m sure he’s been chomping at the bit," said Wilhoite. "But at the same time he’s got to be smart, and he’s got to take care of his body and make sure he’s ready to go."

Like Aldon Smith during his nine-game suspension, Bowman has been a regular at the facility and a participant in meetings. But unlike Smith, he's been on the sideline during games, helping out Wilhoite and rookie standout Chris Borland, who are filling in for the Pro Bowlers at a high level.

"He’s always lending little hints to me, little hints to Chris. He’s always talking to us, giving us little things we can do better, little things we did well," Wilhoite said.

San Francisco also opened the 21-day practice windows of tight end Garrett Celek and two rookies: offensive lineman Brandon Thomas and cornerback Keith Reaser. Celek had been on the physically unable to perform list, while the rookies were on the non-football injury list.

In his meeting with reporters Monday, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he expects Celek to be the closest to a potential return to the active roster. Celek had back surgery in the offseason to repair a bulging disk that was pinching a nerve and leading to pain down his leg, according to CSN Bay Area.

Thomas and Reaser are both coming off ACL tears. Reaser tore his in his final collegiate game at Florida Atlantic in October of 2013. Thomas tore his in April during a pre-draft workout with the Saints.

"Now, how much all four of those will be able to do remains to be seen," Harbaugh said. "Definitely don’t think Brandon Thomas and Reaser, they’re not going to be full-go, they’re not going to be practicing but they can take advantage of some walkthrough, some limited individual drills. There won’t be much as compared to Celek. Garrett, I think, he’ll be able to practice. He’s much further along and ready to go. And then with NaVorro, we’ll see where he falls and how much he can do, but it’ll be somewhere in that spectrum."

Tuesdays on the practice field usually consist of up-tempo walkthroughs, while the pads come on for practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The 49ers head into Sunday's game against Washington with the league's fourth-ranked defense, thanks to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's ability to quickly develop players in lockstep with the front office's knack for creating quality depth on the roster.

Bowman and Willis' injuries, Smith's suspension and outside reports about Harbaugh's future with the team could have been catalysts for a destructive season. But that hasn't been the case to this point, as the 49ers (6-4) are one game out of their fourth straight playoff berth. The Dallas Cowboys (7-3) and Green Bay Packers (7-3) are currently the wild card teams.

"No matter what is said about this locker room," safety Eric Reid said, "it doesn’t matter to us. We’re just here to accomplish our goal and that’s winning games...The more people divide us, the more we come together."

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Harbaugh on Brooks: we’ve addressed it

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