Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series on San Francisco 49ers players this season takes a look at the first NFL Draft pick of this new regime, former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas.
Well, the second move. General manager John Lynch traded down from No. 2 to No. 3. But we all know that story anyway.
In doing so, the Niners landed a player former head coach and current analyst, Brian Billick, labeled as “arguably the cleanest player in the draft.”
Many draft analysts ranked Thomas the No. 2 player available in the 2017 draft class, just behind former Texas A&M EDGE Myles Garrett, who went to the Cleveland Browns No. 1 overall.
Thomas’ collegiate numbers do enough talking to warrant this:
But these only tell part of the story. Thomas is a disruptive force along the defensive line and marks the third-consecutive, first-overall D-lineman taken by San Francisco in the draft (Arik Armstead, 2015 and DeForest Buckner, 2016).
Thomas has the chance to be even better than the previous two.
Why He’ll Improve
One of the advantages Thomas has is he’s the first player selected in the draft by this new regime as it switches from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base.
Both Armstead and Buckner were intended to be 3-4 defensive ends, although defensive coordinator Robert Saleh figures to make it all work this season. Regardless how the pieces fit, this trio figures to be pretty dynamic soon.
And Thomas certainly has the trajectory — especially against the run, which was the 49ers’ weakest link last year — to make this happen:
Looking at the sack totals from last year alone (8.5), as well as tackles for a loss (14), we can fairly judge Thomas is effective against both the pass and run games.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein touted Thomas’ ability to vary his pass-rush moves and to get within the pocket with great speed — unusual for a player of his stature.
But Thomas isn’t planning on living off his collegiate hype.
Instead, he — along with Armstead and Buckner — have been attending Denver Broncos DE Von Miller’s pass-rush summit at Stanford.
While there, Thomas worked out with edge-rushing great, DeMarcus Ware:
We can only speculate how much a difference this will make in Thomas’ maturation. But at least he’s taking whatever steps necessary to show he can make an immediate impact for a San Francisco defense needing all the help it can get.
Why He’ll Regress
Thomas’ 6-foot-3, 273-pound frame has some scouts, per Zierlein, considering the former Stanford product a “tweener.”
Smaller defensive ends often work much better in 4-3 alignments, so maybe this isn’t as much a problem as it seems on the surface. But Zierlein did point out the need for Thomas to get stronger in his lower body.
This will be crucial, as the quality of offensive linemen he’ll face at the NFL level will be vastly superior to anything he’s taken on before.
There’s always the question where the Niners will best see his fit along a revamped D-line too. It’s likely he’ll rotate, depending on whether the 49ers are in base or nickel schemes, and this might take some adjustment.
Still, it’s hard to find too many reasons why Thomas won’t be a tremendous fit here.
What to Expect in 2017
One should note Zierlein compared Thomas to former 49ers great, Justin Smith.
Smith used to be San Francisco’s own pocket-wrecking force, which opened up lanes for pass-rushers, like Aldon Smith, to be so successful.
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The Niners defensive front has struggled since the elder Smith retired just before the 2015 season and haven’t found anyone who can quite fill the void.
It wouldn’t be too surprising to see Thomas go through some minor growing pains early in his pro career — playing with a high pad level, guessing wrong on snap counts, etc. These are the same sort of things that hindered Buckner early his rookie season, although Buckner eventually wound up correcting them midway through 2016 en route to a fine first-year effort.
But arguably the best part of this impact will be the fact opponents will, essentially, have to “pick their poison” guarding San Francisco’s defensive front.
Block Thomas, and Buckner now becomes a primary threat from the interior. Yet if Buckner is the bigger threat, Thomas will see his chances increase.
This doesn’t even include Armstead.
So yes, the 49ers defensive line could easily go from one of the worst in the league last year to a potential dominant force in just under a year.
And it will be exciting to watch all along.