The never-ending question for the San Francisco 49ers has become, what’s the deal with Solomon Thomas not getting more opportunities inside as a pass rusher. And while we regularly hear that the thought process is to move him in there, we do not see it happen with any regularity.
Over the past year and a half, we have heard repeatedly that Thomas is best suited as a pass rusher to be playing in a defensive tackle role. Last December, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said the plan is to eventually get Thomas inside, stating, “inside is where he’s going to make his hay.” Earlier this week, John Lynch said as much on 95.7 The Game.
On Wednesday, Saleh was asked about how they evaluate Thomas, and whether changes need to be made in how he’s deployed.
“With Solomon, it really is — you have to understand, we’re very blessed, we have a lot of good inside guys — and Solomon, I do believe, is one of our better football players. So, to get him on the football field in one form or fashion, especially from a base down standpoint, first/second down, run/pass, where I do believe he is a really good edge run defender, and he does provide some stuff off the edge. On pass downs, we do want to get him inside, but it goes back to earning, winning one-on-ones consistently, and producing at that spot.
“So, he’ll get his opportunities in the next six weeks, along with Arik and Sheldon, and all those guys, but there comes a lot of impatience when it comes to a No. 3 pick. And that’s the hard thing — there’s a world of pressure and a world of stress. The pressure that’s on Solomon to produce and be his best is what we want to keep him in because he’s got control over what he can produce as an individual football player — just by his work ethic and the way he approaches his job. Trying to get him, in a stressful world, where now it’s about results, that’s different. Now you’re dealing with a player who’s pressing. With Solomon, it’s just continue to grow and build and get better every single day. And that’s why we’re trying to keep him in that world of pressure — which he’s doing a great job, and I do think he’s going to end up on the top end of this. In a world of immediate gratification or satisfaction, patience is non-existent anymore — so, he’ll be fine.”
The final six weeks will provide plenty of opportunities to assess who will contribute what in 2019. DeForest Buckner is locked into one of the two starting defensive tackle roles. He occasionally gets some work on the edge, but it is rare. Of his 521 defensive snaps, 277 have come at either left or right defensive tackle, per Pro Football Focus. 180 have come at what PFF describes as right or left end, which they view closer to DT in terms of lining up over the inside shoulder of the tackle. 51 have come in the traditional edge rusher role.
Solomon Thomas has played 358 total defensive snaps, and 277 of them have come in the edge roles. He has played 40 in the right/left end roles, and 33 between nose tackle and left and right defensive tackle. Sheldon Day has played 144 snaps in the LDT, RDT, and NT roles, and another 63 at left and right end. Arik Armstead has played 47 snaps in the defensive/nose tackle roles, and 101 in the left and right end roles.
Earl Mitchell is gets all his work inside as well, but it is primarily on base downs where Thomas has shown success as a run-stopping edge. The problem is that Thomas cannot move past Day and Armstead for DT or end work. Patience is a virtue to a certain degree, but it strikes me as fairly reasonable to expect a third overall pick to be able to force the situation a bit more.
This coming offseason is an interesting one for the 49ers as it relates to players with whom Thomas is competign. The easiest decision will be to exercise DeForest Buckner’s option. This offseason is the first time they can sign him to an extension, so that is an option as well. They have to also decide if they want to have Arik Armstead playing on the fifth year option in 2019 that they exercised last year. He’s having a very solid season, but will it be enough in their minds to justify a $9 million salary?
The final issue is what they do with Sheldon Day. He was a fourth round pick in 2016, which means this offseason is the first time he can negotiate a contract extension. He is signed through 2019, but will the 49ers push to ink him longer? They seem to like what he is doing, giving him quite a bit of work, often over their third overall pick. How his contract is approached could tell us a bit about what may or may not be in the works for Thomas next year.