It seems the 49ers finally came to their senses and settled on playing Solomon Thomas at weak side defensive end (LEO). The LEO, as defined by Pete Carroll, is an athletic player you want to get in space. Size doesn’t matter as much - it’s all about disruption through athleticism.
Up until this week Thomas backed up Tank Carradine at the strong side defensive end position. Tank’s injury, however, seems to have put things in their natural order. The strong side or “big” end requires holding up at the point of attack versus double teams, and in some cases, being responsible for two gaps. Arik Armstead, despite the dalliance with LEO, has a profile much better suited for a strong side end.
Sure, Thomas is talented enough to handle the strong side responsibilities, but he is uniquely qualified to play LEO. His athleticism score puts him in the 94th-percentile of EDGE defenders in the NFL. That means he tested better than Carl Lawson, Takk McKinley, and Joey Bosa. You want to set that athleticism loose on opposing quarterbacks in space even on non-obvious passing downs.
Against the Cardinals the 49ers deployed Thomas as the primary LEO. It wasn’t until the end of the game when the Cardinals were in obvious passing situations, and running no-huddle, that Thomas kicked inside as an interior defender. Thomas Pro Football Focus rating this week? 82.3. This highest of his nascent career.
The seeming consensus on a player comparison to Thomas pre-draft was Michael Bennett. Bennett also plays all over the line and kicks inside on obvious pass rushing downs. It seems the 49ers are finally using that play-time blue print. Thomas is good enough to play several positions well, but the team simply does not have another every-down defensive lineman with Thomas’ athletic profile. The sooner he gains experience and becomes an expert at the nuances of LEO the better.