There’s no getting around the notion Solomon Thomas was a bust for the 49ers, yet a productive 2020 could help save his floundering career.
Top-five draftees are expected to be perennial Pro Bowlers, potential All-Pros and possible Hall of Famers down the line. They’re the kind of players franchises build around, and the hope for then-first year general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan was for Thomas to fit the bill in many of those levels.
Except it didn’t happen.
Granted, the Niners didn’t help Thomas’ development by playing him out of position his rookie season. The following year in 2018, Thomas’ sister’s premature passing left him understandably devastated and cut into his efforts on the field.
But by 2019, it was pretty clear Thomas was going to be little more than a role player, a reserve option amid a stacked defensive line comprised of other first-round talents who all panned out:
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
In 2019, Thomas appeared on just 41 percent of defensive snaps, down from 60 percent the previous two seasons, thanks largely to the effectiveness of one of Thomas’ defensive linemates, EDGE Nick Bosa.
Now entering the final year of his rookie contract, and with the 49ers electing not to pick up his fifth-year option, Thomas is entering a do-or-die situation where his NFL future is at stake.
Yet there’s a chance Thomas winds up putting it together this season, earning a recognizable role for San Francisco in what could easily be his swan song with the team.
Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series for 2020 players takes a deeper look.
Why Solomon Thomas improves with 49ers in 2020
It’s clear Thomas won’t live up to the lofty expectations placed upon top picks in the NFL Draft. That window of hope is gone now, and the best one could hope for is a productive season in which Thomas finds a regular role with some noticeable impact.
Flashes have been there, yes. And Thomas’ abilities against the run, particularly on the inside, suggests he could be a solid first- and second-down piece at a 3-technique position.
This was a spot previously occupied by now-Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner the past three seasons. While the Niners hope their top pick from the 2020 draft, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, picks up where Buckner left off, there’s a chance San Francisco brings Kinlaw along slowly, primarily giving him third-down pass-rushing snaps only during the opening phase of his career.
Thomas, meanwhile, could end up earning a lot of base-down snaps and might be able to capitalize on the opportunity.
Why Solomon Thomas regresses with 49ers in 2020
Giving Thomas an increase in snaps is one thing. Having him make the most of them en route to some serious productivity is another.
Even when Thomas was seeing the majority of starting snaps in 2017 and 2018, his pressure rates weren’t particularly inspiring. In 2018, on 337 pass-rushing snaps, Thomas logged a mere 21 hurries — a lowly pressure rate of just 6.2 percent.
Last year, the number dropped to 2.3 percent.
Essentially, it appears as if what’s been seen with Thomas the past three years is who he is as a player at the pro level: a modest rotational depth piece capable of filling in at various positions with so-so results.
And if he’s unable to capitalize on what could be a turning-point year, the Niners may have no other choice but to rush Kinlaw along into a more featured role.
Projected role with 49ers in 2020
For those hoping the Niners could trade Thomas between now and Week 1, it won’t happen. That window is closed, too, and no other team would be willing to dish out draft capital for an underachieving player entering the final year on his current contract.
Especially considering he’ll count for nearly $9.05 million against the cap this season.
Almost $8 million of that would be dead money, too, so San Francisco isn’t going to be waiving Thomas anytime soon either. He’ll be on the roster in Week 1, as long as he stays healthy.
Early on, depending on Kinlaw’s development, Thomas could see a noticeable increase in snaps on base downs over the first few weeks, perhaps pushing him closer towards the rough 60 percent of snaps he saw during his first two years in the league. But Thomas’ lack of prowess in the pass rush means he’ll be subbed out for Kinlaw in passing situations.
And as the season moves along, Kinlaw is likely to be phased in on a more regular basis.
Beyond 2020, things get even more questionable for Thomas. Run-stopping defensive linemen are much easier to find, and Thomas might only be able to latch on somewhere strictly as a backup.
And another “what could have been” player.