San Francisco 49ers: Who is defensive end Arik Armstead?

Aug 10, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead (91) during training camp at Kezar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 10, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead (91) during training camp at Kezar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports /

Niner Noise kicks off our 2017 49ers offseason “who is?” preview by looking at third-year pro defensive end Arik Armstead and what to expect this season.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead enters his third year at the pro level with plenty of opportunity amid an uncertainty about how defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will use him.

Armstead marks the first of three consecutive defensive linemen the Niners have taken first overall in the NFL Draft. The 49ers used the No. 17 overall pick back in 2015 to land the 6-foot-7, 296-pound lineman out of Oregon.

While Armstead didn’t start his rookie year, he did flash enough promise to make headway his second year at the NFL level. He was a major standout in training camp and the preseason a year ago, which is currently the biggest hype he has going for him.

Yet a nagging shoulder injury cut Armstead’s 2016 campaign to just eight games:

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This injury didn’t help Armstead’s run-stopping abilities much either. According to Pro Football Focus, he managed only a 39.1 run-defense grade on the year — worst among all San Francisco interior defenders.

Armstead may not be one of the better run defenders on the 49ers defense anyway. And this is probably a major reason why defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is planning to feature him as a pass-rushing specialist this season.

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Why He’ll Improve

The shoulder injury certainly hindered Armstead’s maturation and development. Prior to that news, Armstead was easily one of San Francisco’s most-improved players heading into 2016.

With the shoulder fully healed, by all accounts, Armstead hopefully picks up where he left off. And if he doesn’t have to defend against the run, Saleh hopes to put Armstead’s pocket-wrecking abilities into full force.

This is a best-case scenario but not exactly a perfect one.

Why He’ll Regress

Thanks to subsequent D-Line additions in DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, Armstead is essentially a man without a position.

Sure, moving him to the right defensive end, or LEO, position in the Niners defense may pan out. But Armstead’s frame isn’t exactly built for this type of work. He may be a solid interior pass-rusher. Yet coming off the edge likely isn’t his best strength.

It’s entirely possible Armstead struggles in this role.

What to Expect in 2017

Armstead is going to make the 53-man roster, barring injury, with little problem. And it isn’t as if the Niners have a plethora of edge-rushing candidates to usurp Armstead on the depth chart.

At best, Armstead relishes the role and is able to post double-digit sacks. Yet his height and questionable ability to either bend or get below blockers may cause some problems in his actual moves to get around the outside.

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If Armstead only has to meet one blocker at the line of scrimmage, his strength alone might be the difference. But it’s going to be interesting to see how teams scheme blockers against him if the sack/pressure totals start to rise early.

At any rate, what we have here is a boom-or-bust scenario in which Armstead either thrives or washes out in his new role.

Next: Top 49ers 2017 position battles to watch in training camp

Let’s hope for the better of the two.