While the stats didn’t always show it, 49ers defensive tackle Arik Armstead was a force in 2021, and the team will rely upon him to do so again in 2022.
If you listen closely enough, you’ll hear something you wouldn’t have heard a few years ago, especially not before the 2019 season.
It’s the critics of San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Arik Armstead.
OK, sure. There’ll still be the stat geeks who look at nothing else but the numbers and suggest Armstead’s production has been lacking outside of that 10-sack campaign he had back in 2019.
Although six sacks in 2022 isn’t exactly a slouch of an effort.
Either way, Armstead’s 2021 production is a case example of why the statistics don’t always tell the whole story. In fact, they omit a whole heck of a lot of it. That’s surely the case here.
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Armstead is easily a candidate for one of the Niners’ most underappreciated players, which probably feeds into why fans are sometimes sour on him for his massive five-year, $85 million contract signed early in 2020.
However, in terms of doing a lot of the dirty work, few defensive linemen on San Francisco’s roster do as much with so little recognition.
Let’s explore why this has to repeat in 2022 in our annual player-profile piece, this one on the 49ers’ former first-round NFL Draft pick.
Why Arik Armstead improves with 49ers in 2022
2021 was a bit of a watershed for Armstead and the Niners, namely in the wake of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans moving him permanently inside the formation. Previously, Armstead rotated back and forth between a defensive tackle and a defensive end but still frequently lined up on the end.
He wasn’t bad in this role, per se, as he emerged as one of San Francisco’s better run-stopping linemen. But it wasn’t tailored to his natural strengths.
Ryans pointed out the crucial nature of this midseason move, which helped cap off the 49ers’ D-line’s leap midway in the year:
"It’s awesome to see a guy like Arik step in and step up for our defense where we needed it the most. He stepped up the biggest for us, and that’s been the biggest turnaround in our defense, is the play of Arik Armstead inside."
The Niners did this without a true No. 2 pass-rusher to pair with EDGE Nick Bosa on the outside, instead having to rely on a rotation of EDGEs like Jordan Willis, Samson Ebukam and now-Jacksonville Jaguars defender Arden Key.
However, in the wake of San Francisco using a second-round draft pick on EDGE Drake Jackson, there’s no reason to assume Armstead does anything but continue that prowess within the interior.
Why Arik Armstead regresses with 49ers in 2022
There are a few factors and X-factors working against Armstead and a presumed full-time inside role.
For starters, nose tackle D.J. Jones is no longer with the team, joining the Denver Broncos in free agency during the offseason, which removes one of the linemates alongside whom Armstead had a great rapport ever since Jones was drafted in 2017.
The fix, of course, is for the 49ers to hope third-year pro defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw takes a next-level leap after missing much of 2021 with a knee injury.
If Kinlaw struggles, though, it might mean a slight regression for Armstead, too.
Similarly, Pro Football Focus was somewhat bearish on Armstead’s move inside despite Ryans’ comments and the casual observation from the viewing public on its success. From Weeks 1 through 5 last season when Armstead was primarily on the edge, he never had a game grade lower than 72.
From Week 7 onward, he only crested that mark twice in the regular season.
Arik Armstead’s projected 2022 role, impact for 49ers
Ryans has the flexibility to move Armstead back outside, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. But it’s likely this happens only because of injuries piling up.
Plus, with Kinlaw still trying to find his footing at the NFL level, it wouldn’t be shocking if Ryans elects to keep both former first-round picks together on the inside in an Armstead-Kinlaw mentorship-kind of relationship.
It’s important to note five of Armstead’s six sacks in 2021 came after he bumped to the inside of the formation, so one might assume that switch was good for him, statistically, too.
If he’s there for a full 17-game season and is able to stay healthy, it’s surely possible he winds up getting closer to that 10-sack campaign from 2019 instead of further away from it.
That’ll be the hope for the Niners’ still-imposing D-line entering 2022. And while the efforts may not be enough to land Armstead his first Pro Bowl nod, he nevertheless will wind up earning a bit more appreciation from the fanbase regardless.