49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Arik Armstead must live up to contract

Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

49ers defensive tackle Arik Armstead enters 2020 with some lofty expectations.

In a sense, the San Francisco 49ers chose their 2015 first-round NFL Draft pick, Arik Armstead, over their Pro Bowl 2016 first rounder, DeForest Buckner, during the offseason.

These two defensive linemen were crucial in making the Niners defense what it was a year ago, and Armstead finally enjoyed two key elements that had largely eluded him since San Francisco selected him back in 2015: health and extension-worthy stats.

Thanks to Armstead’s 10-sack campaign, the 49ers felt comfortable re-signing the pending free agent to a lucrative five-year, $85 million deal worth $17 million annually.

Doing this, however, came at the expense of saying goodbye to Buckner, who was subsequently traded off to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

In turn, the Niners now hope their top pick from the draft, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, can pick up the slack left in Buckner’s wake.

Armstead will hope for this, too, as the expectation level has never been higher for the 26-year-old defender. While San Francisco’s defensive line remains stacked even after the Buckner trade, Armstead received the nod from the front office that he’s going to be a critical component to the team’s defensive efforts for the foreseeable future.

Just how well those efforts go will ultimately provide the final judgment whether or not the 49ers were right in rewarding Armstead.

Why Arik Armstead Improves with 49ers in 2020

The former Oregon Duck’s first three seasons at the pro level were marked by some growing pains, including regular injuries and a general failure to reach the expected production many give to first-round defensive linemen.

2018 was promising enough, as Armstead was finally fully healthy, but 2019 proved to be a watershed year.

Arik Armstead Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/3/2020.

When he was initially drafted, some scouting reports suggested he wasn’t quite the sum of his parts. And it’s entirely justifiable to suggest Armstead finally “put it all together” in 2019, getting to double-digit sacks and leading the Niners defense in this particular category.

It’s important to note Armstead is still young and has plenty of years left in him. Enjoying the kind of success in a scheme ushered in by defensive line coach Kris Kocurek should bolster Armstead’s efforts, too, especially if the 49ers are able to move him around from spot to spot to keep opposing blockers off balance.

And while losing Buckner hurts and makes San Francisco’s D-line worse right now, adding a player like Kinlaw could still ultimately mean this unit remains as formidable as it was a year ago.

Why Arik Armstead Regresses with 49ers in 2020

Armstead might need another season or two to fully shake the reputation of being injury prone. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s something worth mentioning.

Yet there’s a bigger concern last year’s spike in production was a mere anomaly, an aberration of sorts, thanks largely to the high level of play from Buckner and opposing teams focusing the vast majority of their blocking attention on another young prolific pass-rusher, Nick Bosa.

Armstead, despite leading the team in sacks, could feasibly be viewed as the team’s third-best outside pass-rusher, putting both Bosa and fellow EDGE Dee Ford ahead of him. Should Ford continue to struggle with injuries, one could wonder if Armstead is equally up to the task again in 2020.

Particularly if Kinlaw takes some time to develop.

The overall concern, essentially, is the wonder if Armstead’s 2019 numbers are a sign of things to come. If they aren’t, and Armstead reverts back to the three- or four-sack totals he had earlier in his career, that lucrative contract extension could look pretty bad over the long haul.

Arik Armstead’s Projected Role with 49ers in 2020

Regardless of what the prognosis is and could be, the Niners are expecting big things from their investment this season.

A fully healthy Ford could mean Armstead sees more time along the interior, particularly in pass-rushing situations where he’d play alongside Kinlaw. That could be a bonus, especially if Kinlaw ascends early. Yet Armstead could also find himself handling run-stuffing duties off the edge in base downs, too. One of Armstead’s best attributes is being able to play multiple positions along the D-line, and this should serve both him and the team well.

But it wouldn’t be a total surprise if Armstead’s sack totals take a minor hit this year, especially if he assumes more of the dirty work once associated with Buckner before this offseason.

That doesn’t mean the role is unimportant, though, especially if San Francisco’s other pass-rushers enjoy the fruits of Armstead’s efforts.

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If this winds up being the case, the 49ers should end up being nicely rewarded from Armstead’s prowess on the field, and the Niners defense will be better because of it.