The San Francisco 49ers are shuffling players left and right along their defensive front, and it appears they will continue pushing Arik Armstead as a potential LEO option. Matt Barrows had a chance to speak with general manager John Lynch on Tuesday, and the 49ers GM is excited about OTAs and the help they will bring in shuffling through the LEO and other roster spots.
OTAs are significant because it is the first time teams are allowed to roll out full offense vs. defense drills. It gives teams a chance to see how players are adjusting to new roles, and what adjustments are still necessary. The coaches have an idea of how a player will fit in a given role, but OTAs can change that as they execute the plan.
The 49ers are switching to a 4-3 defense under head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The team will look for sacks all along the line, but in the base defense, the LEO or Elephant role is viewed as the premier pass rusher. Back in April, Saleh was asked about the plan’s for the role, and who might fill in. He talked about Aaron Lynch, and then offered up some other names as options.
Where do you see a guy like LB Aaron Lynch fitting into your defense?
“Aaron, he’s on the defensive line. We’re going to try to keep his hand in the ground at all times. A couple years ago, when he came out of the draft, we were looking at him as a possible LEO. So, he has all the traits that you would like. Now it’s a matter of us trying to work with him to best utilize what he’s, in my mind, designed to do and that’s get after the passer.”
Who else do you see at that particular spot, the LEO spot?
“We’re looking for, there’s a lot of pieces. Ahmad can do it, Eli can do it, so you’re looking at the SAM/LEO type deal. They’re all capable. Dekoda can do it. Even Arik, he’s not a prototype, but he’s capable just from his flexibility and his--.”
Since then, we’ve heard about the 49ers working in Armstead at the position. There has not been a clear answer as to how much work he is getting there vs. Lynch and the rest of the options. In his chat with Barrows, Lynch talked about what they like with Armstead:
"We love his flexibility, the ability to move inside," Lynch said. "With our front, that's kind of the neat thing for us. There's a lot of moving parts, there's a lot of guys who have versatility to their games."
Armstead played primarily as an interior lineman the past two years, and had considerable success in that role. Injuries slowed him down this past year, but he remained near the top of Pro Football Focus’ pass rush productivity ranking for interior linemen.
Armstead has considerable athleticism for a player his size (6’7, 292 lbs coming out of college), but as Oscar Aparicio has pointed out repeatedly, he would break the mold when it comes to the LEO role.
Big guys have shown an ability to come off the edge, but it feels like it is more of an exception than rule. He’s a big guy who can overpower linemen, but he might have issues with speed coming around the edge against tackles. His power and interior speed works fine against guard, but against some of the premier tackles in the league, will he find success?
If you are concerned about that, the good news is the 49ers will likely spend more time in nickel and dime packages than in their base defense. More than likely, Armstead will spend more time playing defensive tackle than defensive end. But there will be enough time in the base that it will be a question as to how the 49ers rotate in someone like Armstead in that regard. One option could be a rotation out there, with Armstead, Lynch, and others getting opportunities, and Armstead in turn getting more of his work in sub-packages. But for now, we have to wait and see what the practice reports tell us about the various lineups.