After being selected No. 3 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas is dangerously close to “bust” status. Will that change in 2019?
This, following two sub-par years after the Niners took him No. 3 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft — the top selection from the current regime of general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Even in weaker draft classes, top-five picks need to be home runs. Especially if the teams drafting them are bad, which is typically the case. It sure was for the 49ers, coming off a two-win campaign the year before.
After two years, though, Thomas’ production has left a lot to be desired. And then some:
These numbers are indicative of a role player, which Thomas was to a certain extent in 2018, relegated to rotational play for much of the season.
In fairness to Thomas, San Francisco mostly played him out of position his rookie season, which arguably stunted his development. Last year, Thomas was dealing with the tragic and premature passing of his sister, and words can’t describe how that truly affected him.
Still, it’s an on-field game and Thomas will be under a lot of pressure to finally deliver after being such a lofty investment.
Here’s how it can happen.
Why Solomon Thomas Improves in 2019
There won’t be any room for “wait and see” with Thomas. He’s one of a number of players needing to break out in 2019. And that might be good for him, feeling the pressure of being somewhat on the periphery instead of a usually guaranteed role for a high-profile draft pick.
Another factor is the 49ers’ addition of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek to the staff. One of Kocurek’s primary objectives when hired was to see what the team had in Thomas and, more importantly, how to get the most out of him.
Kocurek’s switch to a wide-9 alignment could actually end up benefiting Thomas’ efforts on the inside, as he’ll likely be left in one-on-one matchups with blockers handling the team’s other pass-rushers.
There’s Thomas’ mental approach, too.
“If I did good on something, I wouldn’t care,” Thomas told 49ers.com’s Joe Fann. “If I did bad on something I wouldn’t care. I really didn’t want to be around anyone. I’d say whatever I could to get through the day. It was a dark hole, and it took me a long time to get out of it.”
Having gone through a personal tragedy myself, recently (my wife passed in October of last year), I can 100 percent attest to Thomas’ feelings. Every word is truth.
“I’m getting ready to ball this season,” he continued. “I feel athletic and explosive again. I’m ready to be violent and wreak havoc. Now I’ve got to perfect my technique. That’s going to make me a game-changing player.”
Why Solomon Thomas Regresses
Thomas has shown flashes of being a good pass-rusher, especially on the inside. But they’ve been flashes. The 49ers’ additions of edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa are going to take away a lot of pass-rushing opportunities Thomas might otherwise have.
Where Thomas has regularly flashed prowess, though, is against the run. Yet the problem here is San Francisco already has a good run-stopping interior lineman in Arik Armstead, who’ll be playing for a new contract in 2020.
Armstead was the Niners’ second best defender last season behind Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. So shaking Armstead out of a potential starting bid won’t be easy.
Remember, there are four positions to fill. Thomas could easily be the fifth man out. And it’s hard to show improvement when you’re not seeing the field all too often.
Projected Role and Impact with the 49ers in 2019
Most likely, the Niners would prefer Thomas to win the training camp bout over Armstead. Doing so would mean San Francisco would put it’s more recent first-round draft pick into a long-term role, freeing up the team to move on from the likely more-expensive Armstead in 2020 and beyond.
But Shanahan isn’t going to formulate his starting lineup based off this, meaning those key run-defense roles are going to go to the best player. It’s as simple as that.
Thomas will likely be used on many a base down, as Ford isn’t much of a run stopper and will free up a defensive line spot. On passing downs, though, Ford will be present along with Buckner and Bosa. Thomas is battling it out for that other inside spot next to Buckner in these situations.
If Thomas winds up benefiting from Kocurek’s regimen and coaching, and Thomas’ mental approach is what he says it is, there could be a massive boost from a player many were writing off.
If he doesn’t, though, the 49ers may be forced to admit the mistake.
Let’s hope for the former outcome.