49ers will keep Solomon Thomas on the inside ‘at all costs’

Solomon Thomas #94 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Solomon Thomas #94 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /
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SF 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas might resurrect his career as much as possible by sticking solely to interior D-line play in 2020.

It’s unfortunate SF 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas will never overcome the label of being a first-round NFL Draft bust. Three years and a mere six sacks after the Niners selected him No. 3 overall in the 2017 draft, Thomas has been relegated to a backup player behind the likes of other first-round additions, namely defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Javon Kinlaw.

But there is a way for Thomas to maximize what time he likely has left with San Francisco, and that’s to play almost exclusively on the interior.

Some have argued Thomas’ pro career got off to a bad start after former defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina primarily worked the former Stanford product as more of a defensive end, and that fell in line with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s idea of getting the team’s four best D-line players on the field at a single time.

Based on the stats and impact, the move didn’t work out.

Entering 2020, the SF 49ers defensive line is still stacked, and there won’t be much room for Thomas to make an impact. If he does, however, it’ll come as an interior defender.

“I prefer playing inside, so I like it,” Thomas told reporters last weekend. “I like playing nose. I like playing 3-tech. I don’t weigh as much as most defensive tackles. I have no choice but to get off. I have no choice but to attack. That is the biggest thing for me. … Definitely, it’s where I feel natural at. It’s where I made my money in college. That’s where I feel good.”

The 3-technique is the spot vacated by now-Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and is a role the Niners hope Kinlaw can occupy.

Kinlaw has been promising enough in training camp, yet there have been reports the rookie is struggling in one-on-one pass-rushing drills where he can no longer use sheer brute force to overcome blockers like he did at South Carolina. As such, Kinlaw will need some refinement, which is OK. But it might take some time.

Meanwhile, Thomas could eat up some specific interior duties while Kinlaw matures and develops.

SF 49ers’ Robert Saleh wants Solomon Thomas on the inside

If the last three seasons revealed anything, it’s Thomas’ effectiveness is best felt as an interior rusher and run-stopper, not as an outside pass-rusher.

Kinlaw and nose tackle D.J. Jones are the favorites to start, yes. But with Kinlaw needing some additional tooling and Jones suffering an injury in camp, the door has been open for Thomas to see more inside roles in both base and nickel pass-rushing packages.

And that’s exactly where Saleh wants him to be.

“It’s been our intent to try to keep him inside as much as possible, but he’s such a talented football player that sometimes it’s, ‘Well, shoot, we’ve got to get him on the field,'” Saleh told reporters. “With what we have now with being able to bring Kerry Hyder Jr., we have [defensive end Ronald Blair] coming back from PUP, you’ve got Dee Ford, you’ve got Bosa, you have Arik [Armstead] who can play outside, too. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that Solly stays inside at all costs.”

Last season, Thomas appeared on just 41 percent of defensive snaps, down from 60 percent the year before. Still, injuries were present for the SF 49ers last year, too, meaning even a transition full time to an interior defender won’t automatically make Thomas a favorite for more playing time. There will have to be other factors working into the equation as well.

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Still, for a player who couldn’t live up to the lofty draft hype associated with a top-three pick, the best way for Thomas to resurrect his career as much as possible might be to thrive in this specific role laid out by Saleh.