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49ers practices offers insight into Solomon Thomas, others roles in new-look defense

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The 49ers defense could get back on track with extensive rotations.

The San Francisco 49ers are moving through their offseason workout program, and that means we are starting to get some hints about their defense. There is plenty going on with the offense, but the location of specific players on defense remains a fascinating follow.

The 49ers are moving into a 4-3 defense as they look to emulate what Seattle has been able to develop. We already knew the team was going to move Eric Reid to strong safety, and Jimmie Ward to free safety. The next question is what to make of the defensive front.

When Solomon Thomas was first drafted, he told 49ers media in his post-draft conference call what the team had told him at the Combine. They had mentioned lining up in the end position on base downs, and then moving down to three-technique in sub-packages.

At his first practice, he started out manning the strong-side “big” defensive end position, according to Chris Biderman. There is talk that DeForest Buckner can also man that strong side, but in pre-draft work, Tank Carradine was lining up there. On the other side, Arik Armstead and Aaron Lynch have been the primary competitors for the LEO role. Armstead is much bigger than a team usually uses for that role, but he also has considerable athleticism for a player that big.

The 49ers OTAs and mandatory minicamp will give us some more ideas, but there is the potential for some extensive rotation. We could see all sorts of combinations featuring DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, Earl Mitchell, and Aaron Lynch. Lynch would seem to be competing exclusively in that LEO role, while the rest could rotate among the other three spots, with Armstead potentially competing further at LEO.

Tank Carradine and Eli Harold might get some outside opportunities, although defensive coordinator Robert Saleh mentioned Harold more in connection with the SAM position where Ahmad Brooks would likely start. And of course, Quinton Dial, Ronald Blair, and Chris Jones will all be competing up front as well. Blair showed ability to move all over the front, so he very well could end up getting some work at SAM linebacker as well.

It’s been several years since the 49ers had any sort of depth along the defensive line. The Seahawks defense has been so strong in part because they can rotate in so many talented players along the front. The secondary is key as well, but having extra bodies in the trenches is critical. It’s still early, but the 49ers could be going from having to work Quinton Dial and Ronald Blair extensively, to being able to use them in more rotational roles. That would be huge for getting this defense back on track.