The San Francisco 49ers will have a decision with defensive tackle Arik Armstead next season, who’ll play on his fifth-year option. Here’s why it makes sense to keep him around in 2019.
Right behind him, ranked No. 2, is fellow defensive tackle Arik Armstead.
Armstead is having the best year of his young career after injuries derailed his 2016 and 2017 campaigns, logging 46 tackles and 3.0 sacks — both career highs — and emerging as a legitimate big-end 5-technique run stopper for San Francisco’s defense.
The Niners already picked up the 2015 first-round pick’s fifth-year option, and the $9.046 million becomes fully guaranteed at the start of the league new year in March of 2019. If the 49ers decide to cut him before that point, they’ll save all that money with zero cap hit.
$9-plus million is a lot for a primarily run-stopping defender. And with the amount of depth the Niners will have along their defensive line next season, there’s a reason why some would argue Armstead is let go before that money becomes fully guaranteed.
Here’s why San Francisco would be wise not to pursue that route.
For starters, and despite their defensive woes this season, the 49ers are actually good against the run this season, averaging 4.1 yards per carry against, which is ninth best in the NFL. Armstead is a chief reason why, and his team-best 82.4 PFF run-defense grade is a testament to his efforts here.
That’s pretty important when one factors in the Niners have to see the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, the Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson and a budding Seattle Seahawks running back, Chris Carson, each twice a year.
OK, but doesn’t Armstead’s presence limit the opportunities for second-year defensive end Solomon Thomas, a player this current San Francisco regime has far more invested in, to play his natural inside position instead of a weak-side EDGE?
Not necessarily. A lot depends on the Niners’ actions in the 2019 NFL Draft, although the general consensus is they’ll grab a quality outside pass-rusher early. The thing with most first-year pass-rushers, however, is they’re typically adept at getting to quarterbacks. Few double as quality run stuffers early on, and Thomas’ run-stopping abilities (71.3 PFF grade) are good enough here to let any rookie EDGE stick to pass-rushing situations only.
Thomas and Armstead can always stick inside in sub packages, allowing another first-round tandem in Buckner and a rookie EDGE to rush from the weak side.
Plus, with nearly $105 million in available cap space in 2019 (including roughly $39.2 million in rollover), the Niners need not worry too much about proverbially “pinching pennies.”
Armstead’s long-term future beyond 2019 is anyone’s guess at this point, and it will largely be contingent on how any rookie edge rusher performs next season.
But to say Armstead has zero future in San Francisco next year is premature. And in many ways, it’s pretty foolish.
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