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49ers draft pick Solomon Thomas: The Stanford Swiss Army Knife

Scott Geelan explores Solomon Thomas’ unique versatility

2017 NFL Draft Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The drafting of Solomon Thomas brings the potential for the 49ers to create one of the most versatile and effective defensive line rotations in the NFL. With the versatile abilities of Thomas, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead, backed up by Ronald Blair, to the forefront of the 49ers defensive effort, they can utilise a significant number of small tweaks that give them the best chance of success on a play by play, week by week basis.

Furthermore, the 49ers can look to combine the versatility of the aforementioned players with the more specific skill sets of their other defensive linemen. This way, the team can really tailor their defensive line to the specific situation in terms of down and distance and the opposition that they are facing.

How exactly might they use Thomas, and how precisely may he fit in with Buckner and Armstead however?

It looks like Buckner’s best role in this defense will be as the 3-technique defensive tackle. If they use him in this role, this instantly pushes Thomas to end at least on base downs. Buckner could also play at strong side end.

Armstead looks at his best when aligned at 5-tech, which would be the strong side end position, but he has also been getting work at the weak side end position (often referred to as the LEO). Armstead is far from prototypical in this role, but ultimately if the 49ers believe that he can be disruptive from the position then utilising Armstead here would not be a mistake. Armstead can also kick inside to 3-tech in certain nickel and dime packages.

Thomas is arguably even more versatile than Buckner and Armstead. That being said, I would not advocate the 49ers abusing this versatility so to speak in such a way that it hinders Thomas’ performances significantly.

The 49ers’ dilemma is nonetheless a good one to have. Thomas’ abilities in particular, especially combined with those of Armstead and Buckner, will allow the 49ers to be incredibly multiple along their defensive fronts.

Pass rushing

Thomas is certainly at his best as a pass rusher from the interior, where he utilises his explosive first step, power and a good array of pass rushing moves to simply destroy interior linemen.

Rushing from the 3-tech spot, Thomas obliterates the guard and gets to the QB
Rushing from the 1-tech spot, Thomas bull rushes the centre and gets to the QB

He can nevertheless be productive generating pressure from the edge, though more through using his power than necessarily bending the edge itself. He has also displayed the ability to bend the edge on occasion as well.

Rushing from the 5-tech spot, Thomas destroys the right tackle and sacks the QB
Rushing from outside the tackle, Thomas successfully bends the edge and only a hold prevents the sack

Run defense

Thomas is also a productive run defender across the line, a trait that should see him ingratiate himself to the 49ers’ fans. He displays great balance, power and lateral quickness to make plays in the backfield. He looks best at end however, particularly on the weak side, which could see him line up at that position on base downs and cut off the back side of running plays and disrupt them from there. He could line up at 9-tech, but I think he would be best at 6-tech or 5-tech, even on the weak side.

Thomas lines up at 5-tech, tossing the tackle aside and displaying great lateral quickness to make the stop
Lining up at 5-tech, Thomas explodes inside of the tackle to make the stop behind the line of scrimmage


Thomas’ unique versatility will enable the 49ers to use him in a wide variety of roles, especially as a pass rusher. Equally importantly, whilst not being a prototypical LEO, he can certainly play as a weak side end in base packages and in certain nickel packages, as this is where he seems most effective against the run. He can also play this position in passing situations, but I would expect to see him kick inside to 3-tech or even 1-tech to rush the passer (where he is most effective) frequently. This would also allow both Buckner and Armstead to largely play where they are at their best, though they could all also be rotated to an extent to exploit specific match-ups.