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Solomon Thomas is better along the interior, and 49ers need to play him there

The 3rd overall pick has been a disappointment thus far in his young career. The 49ers have a potential path towards improvement, but will they take it?

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San Francisco 49ers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Solomon Thomas is effectively the new Alex Smith. A highly touted prospect, drafted with a premier pick, that underperformed early. It’s not uncommon to hear 49ers fans utter “bust” and “Solly” in the same sentence. The expectation was a double digit edge rusher, a LEO, a weak side defensive end that brought Michael Bennett-levels of disruption. After 2017, a season where Thomas spent over 70 percent of his time as an edge defender, it was pretty apparent the experiment failed.

I don’t fault the 49ers for trying Thomas at weak-side defensive end. His athletic profile puts him in the 94th percentile of edge players in the NFL. While athleticism doesn’t guarantee success as a pass rusher, the best pass rushers are typically great athletes. Given the effect of a quality pass rush, it made complete sense to try Solomon Thomas at one of the most valuable positions in football. If he managed to produce as a pass rusher the 49ers would be set for years to come.

This offseason, Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus detailed precisely how the 49ers could get the most out of their third overall pick. They should play him along the interior, the position Thomas dominated in college. The logic is fairly straightforward. Success at the college level is predictive of performance in the NFL when the player is asked to do the same things he succeeded in at in college. This makes perfect sense — if a player does something very well in college there’s an increased likelihood they will continue to do that thing well in the NFL.

But Robert Saleh’s utilization of Thomas in 2018 mirrors that of 2017. Through Week 7, Thomas has played 77 percent of his snaps on the edge. And, just like his usage, his performance is largely unchanged. He continues to be a very good run defender; a player that’s virtually unblockable when teams throw tight ends at him.

But his pass rush has been virtually non-existent. His pass rush productivity this season ranks him 91st out of 107 players with at least 60 pass rush snaps. And even on some of his best pass rush snaps from the edge, he looks like as out of place as a 22 year old at prom.

While Robert Saleh may not read Pro Football Focus articles (despite the fact that the 49ers are one of PFF’s clients), Solomon Thomas’ play this season continues to make the case that he should see increased snaps along the interior. In Week 4, Solomon Thomas lined up over Mike Pouncey, a top-10 center in football. The result? Thomas basically turns him into a human hula-hoop.

Against the Lions, Thomas uses an effective chop to prevent the guard from getting hands on his body, then he accelerates through the gap, ending up with a hit on Matt Stafford.

Perhaps the biggest knock on Thomas is that he’s too small to really be an effective interior player. This argument still baffles me in a post-Aaron Donald world. But in case you were wondering, yes, Solomon Thomas still holds up as a run defender along the interior.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Robert Saleh continues to stubbornly play Thomas out of position. Sheldon Day and Earl Mitchell routinely out-snap the third overall pick in the draft, despite the fact that Thomas grades better along the interior than both of those players. In Thomas’ 60 interior snaps this season through week 7, his overall PFF grade (71.9) is higher than both Earl Mitchell (63.0) and Sheldon Day (61.6). And, perhaps most telling, Thomas’ pass rushing productivity would rank him 9th amongst interior defenders. That’s just a shade behind DeForest Buckner, who sits at 7th.

Saleh made a small, but, significant change against the Rams. He aligned DeForest Buckner at 1-technique; a defensive alignment usually reserved for nose tackles. That move opened up opportunities for Thomas to play along the interior. 16 out of 38 opportunities, to be exact. Thomas’ 42 percent interior utilization was by far the highest rate of any game this season. How did Thomas respond? With the third highest single game grade of his young career.

It took 20 games, but this should be the inflection point for Solomon Thomas. The 49ers won’t ever be able to properly evaluate him, or get the most out of him, unless the experiment against the Rams becomes a season-long blueprint.