49ers 2021 ‘Who is?’ series: Arik Armstead needs to bounce back

Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

2020 revealed 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead needs a top supporting cast to be productive, and that’ll be the expectation this season.

In 2020, the San Francisco 49ers essentially decided they wanted to make their 2015 first-round NFL Draft pick, defensive end Arik Armstead, a fixture of their long-term future instead of Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts that offseason.

Subsequently, and coming off a 2019 campaign in which he led the Niners with 10 sacks, Armstead inked a notable five-year, $85 million deal to help anchor what was then still considered San Francisco’s top defensive unit.

Amid a swarm of injuries to fellow linemen, such as EDGEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, Armstead fell way short of the statistical production for which the 49ers were hoping.

Potentially as a result, Armstead’s 2020 campaign looked much more like his so-so 2018 efforts than his breakout 2019 year:

Arik Armstead Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/3/2021.

Now at 27 years old, Armstead will look to return to the kind of form that helped him net such a lofty extension.

And with many of his fellow defensive linemen looking for their own resurgent 2021 campaigns, there are plenty of reasons to assume Armstead reverts back to his 2019 numbers this upcoming season.

Let’s take a look in our latest “Who is?” segment.

Why Arik Armstead improves with 49ers in 2021

The combined losses of both Bosa and Ford generated a trickle-down effect that hampered Armstead’s overall impact. Not only was he by default the best D-lineman on the Niners roster, thereby incurring plenty of double teams while his linemates weren’t taking as much advantage, but San Francisco was forced to play Armstead much more on the outside instead of on the interior.

Over 80 percent of his pass-rushing snaps came from the edge on the strong side of the formation, yet the bulk of his 10 quarterback hurries came from the interior.

Getting Bosa back should make a huge difference here, freeing up Armstead to see more time in the interior in passing formations while still being a quality anchor in run formations on the outside where his 79.5 Pro Football Focus run-defense grade is well above average.

On top of that, Armstead should benefit if second-year defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, the player ultimately responsible for replacing Buckner, takes that notable leap from his rookie season.

Should Bosa be back to form and Kinlaw begins to show his prowess, that’ll ultimately take plenty of pressure off Armstead and result in more one-on-one opportunities where he thrived in 2019.

Why Arik Armstead regresses with 49ers in 2021

While there are plenty of reasons to assume Armstead winds up bouncing back this season, it’s just as possible 2019 was more of an anomaly than a true indicator of what’s to come.

After all, Armstead never had more than three sacks before two seasons ago, and the 3.5 registered last year is consistent with his previous numbers.

Even in 2019, Armstead’s pass-productivity mark of 8.0 is more consistent with good supplementary pass-rushers instead of the more elite-level numbers of 9.0 and above. Case in point, Bosa’s 2019 PRP mark was 9.7 despite him finishing the year with one less sack than Armstead. This suggests Armstead was much more a beneficiary of fortunate pass-rushing circumstances two years ago than a true difference-maker on the field.

There’s an equally plausible chance Armstead has reached his ceiling at this stage in his career, one where he’s a quality defender but not the high-end producer the 49ers want to see.

Projected role, impact this upcoming season

After dealing with injuries early in his NFL career, the one bonus Armstead has offered over the last three seasons has been availability. And unlike other D-linemen on the team over that stretch, Armstead isn’t exactly a liability. He’s remained productive.

Perhaps just not to the total level the Niners have expected.

If one had to guess, Armstead is probably poised to be on the more productive side in 2021 rather than seeing any sort of major regression. And he scheduled to make nearly $12.5 million this upcoming year, so it isn’t as if he’s going anywhere.

Things get a bit interesting, contractually speaking, in 2022, though.

Armstead’s contract numbers could jump all the way up to $20 million a year from now, coming at a time when San Francisco is looking to extend Bosa to what could be a top-paying deal for a defensive player.

If Armstead struggles this season or comes nowhere close to living up to expectations, a post-June 1 cut would still cost $5 million in dead money but generate $15 million in cap savings.

To avoid that, Armstead will need to showcase the kind of efforts from 2019 that helped him land his massive deal.

And if it requires his supporting cast to make it happen, then one of the 49ers’ top-paid defenders should have the tools to make it so.

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