Let's clear up some things about Arik Armstead

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I think poor Arik is the least understood 49er on Niner Nation so let's put to rest some myths, shall we?

Myth #1a: "Arik Armstead is an average player"

Myth #1b: "3 years, 30 starts, 6 sacks? What a bust!"

Reality: It's simply not true but understanding this requires some nuance and context. For that reason, this part is going to take a while so bear with me.

Lets go all the way back to pre-draft evaluations. No two ways about it, he was a very raw prospect. "Projection-based prospect with elite size and the traits to become a dominant run-stuffing defensive end in an odd front. Armstead has the explosiveness off the snap and in his jarring punch to gain early advantages and control offensive linemen. Armstead is a fast riser but is still very raw. He will need patience and coaching and must become a more effective pass rusher at some point.Projection-based prospect with elite size and the traits to become a dominant run-stuffing defensive end in an odd front. Armstead has the explosiveness off the snap and in his jarring punch to gain early advantages and control offensive linemen. Armstead is a fast riser but is still very raw. He will need patience and coaching and must become a more effective pass rusher at some point."

Walter: "Both a general manager and a college scouting director told me they both felt Armstead was a solid second-rounder. They agree that he has size and talent, but hasn't produced as they hoped. ... Both teams felt that Armstead's best fit would come as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense. In a 4-3, he would play a power left end and move inside to tackle to rush the quarterback in passing situations... Player Comparison: Calais Campbell. Campbell and Armstead are very similar athletes. Campbell (6-8, 300) is a giant defensive end who fits best in the Cardinals' 3-4 defense. Armstead looks very similar. They both have a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism for long athletes who carry their weight well.

Niners Nation: Armstead is just scraping the surface of his potential. His unique combination of size and athleticism will outweigh lack of on field production in the minds of scouts."

The CBS profile is gone but note that the NN profile above says, "'s Rob Rank [sic] compared Armstead to the Cardinals' Calais Campbell: Armstead hasn't yet shown the strength and physicality that has made Campbell one of the league's best 3-4 defensive ends but the blend of size and athleticism is undeniable."

So to sum up, freak physical talents, multiple comparisons with Calais Campbell, (more on that later) but poor production leaving him as a likely project. His lack of production caused John Gruden to offer this hot take on draft day ("You have to question how much he loves the game of football.") but there is absolutely zero indiction that anyone else who knew Armstead felt that way. But nonetheless, opinions varied greatly on this pick. Those who liked it pointed to his high ceiling. Those that hated it pointed to his lack of production. There were two polls on Niners Nation grading the pick; both were the same bell curve centered on a "C". Furthermore, the consensus here at Niners Nation was that Armstead would play very little his first year, possibly some special teams snaps, but not much else. Myself included. This is important: even those that felt this would end up a good pick did not see Armstead being an immediate contributor in his rookie year.

Well year 1 went a little differently than most expected. Perhaps it was foreshadowed when, in preseason, Armstead said he was the best pass rushing DL on the team already (remember at this time most of us were waiting for Tank to break out in this role). Armstead ended up playing all 16 games, though only 375 defensive snaps. Most surprisingly, he had the highest PFF pass rushing productivity (PRP) of all 3-4 DEs that year. (More on this stat later). He didn't have eye-popping conventional stats but this was a better start than most of us expected and seemed like a good start for a guy drafted on potential rather than year 1 production.

So what about year 2? I think it's fair to say we were all excited about pairing him up with rookie Deforest Buckner, especially because Buckner was a far more polished draft prospect befitting his #5 overall pick. But when camp rolled around, it wasn't Buckner that was turning the most heads, it was Armstead. Between his teammates, various beat writers, and his defensive coordinator it was clear he was the best player on the field and was expected to have an All-Pro or Pro-Bowl year. But then, he got injured in camp and never could get healthy. He played through injury through 8 games getting only 334 snaps before going on season-ending IR. Amazingly, though, when he was on the field, he was still getting after the QB. After leading 3-4 DEs in PRP his rookie year, Armstead did it again. Read this stat from that link: "Armstead’s 62 total pressures in his first two years would have led the league in 2016, despite playing 77 fewer total pass-rush snaps than Calais Campbell, who had a league-high 56 total pressures last season ." Again we have a comparison, a very favorable one, to Campbell. This is important as we will see.

Year 3 saw another coaching change and this time a fairly significant scheme change. Instead of a 3-4 we were now running a 4-3 under. Prior to the draft it was widely speculated that Armstead and Buckner would man the 5-tech (aka SDE or "big end") and the 3-tech, though there was some disagreement about who would go where. After Solomon Thomas was drafted, however, things were more unclear. Immediately on draft day John Lynch told the press he envisioned Thomas playing the role of Michael Bennett, 5-tech on base downs and kicking inside on passing downs. This of course seemed to leave Armstead without a position until it was reported the team was working him in at LEO in OTAs despite Armstead's physical traits being highly atypical, to put it kindly, for the position.

To accommodate the position switch Armstead had to change his body type, an undertaking that should make Niners fans cringe considering the Tank Carradine fiasco. There is some confusion about whether he had already lost some weight during his offseason training but Armstead's own words make it clear he lost 10-15 pounds to play LEO: "I think it’s going well. I’m a pretty versatile guy, and I think the coaches saw that in me. They believe in me that I can play that position, I believe in myself. It’s a little adjustment of course going from a two-gap in to a LEO edge rusher type guy. Definitely had to lose some weight and change my body a little bit to better help me play that position....I probably lost about 15, 10-15."

This also meant that Armstead would be trying to fit in better of the edge perhaps at the detriment of being able to bullrush from the interior as he had in the past. In discussing the position switch, Lynch mentioned the ability to kick Armstead inside but when after the 2017 was over, Armstead had taken 77% of his snaps off the edge. Perhaps not surprisingly, his performance suffered even before he went on season ending IR with a fracture. Despite playing in a premier pass rush position, his PRP declined from 11.2 in 2016 to 7.9 in 2017. To those not familiar with what these numbers mean, that's going from pretty darn good to "meh".

So what does all this mean? It means we have not yet had a chance to judge what Armstead can do. Year 1 was always going to be about the learning curve. Year 2 seemed like a breakout year but marred by injury from which he could never heal. Year 3 saw him forced to change his body composition and position to make room for Soloman Thomas, an almost criminally negligent decision on the part of Lynch and Shanahan to set up "their guy" for success to the detriment of the team as a whole.

Myth 2: "PRP is some wonky PFF voodoo and anyhow, didn't Cory Lemonier have a good PRP and turned out to be a bust?"

Reality: PRP is a simple and mostly objective statistic that measures sacks, QB hits, and QB pressures as a percentage of pass rushing snaps, with hits and pressures weighted less than sacks. The only subjective part might be defining a pressure but it's far more objective than the PFF grades which are something else altogether. Sack totals and PRP both tell you something, just like HR totals and slugging percentage both tell you something in baseball. As for Lemonier, all I can say is statistics are statistics, they are not predictors of future performance. In the case of Lemonier it's easy to see why he accumulated a good PRP then dropped off completely.

He had a completely one-dimensional pass rush repertoire consisting of only a speed rush. That allowed him a bunch of pressures early on until teams figured this out and started letting him run wide circles around the QB. His drop off into oblivion had nothing to do with PRP as a stat but everything to with him as a player. If he had converted a bunch of those pressures into actual sacks the outcome would have been the same. Would anyone then say that sack totals are a worthless stat because Lemonier fizzled out? No. So let's move on from this talking point.

Myth 3: "Armstead is injury prone"

Reality: Armstead suffered a separated shoulder in 2016 and a hand fracture in 2017, two completely unrelated injuries and nothing that suggests a pattern of tendency towards injury. Let's face it, unless you have a bone tumor or osteoporosis, you don't get fractures because you are prone to them. You get them because you play a sport where 200-300lb men are crashing into each other with extreme violence every snap. Armstead's injury history is frustrating but there is nothing to suggest his risk of future injury is greater than anyone else's.

Myth 4: "Armstead isn't a scheme fit. Isn't he better in a 3-4?"

This one bugs me to no end because 1) it's not true, 2) his body type (pre-LEO) is very similar to Buckner and nobody questions Buckner's scheme fit, 3) there was no debate about this that I recall until we drafted Thomas and made Armstead play LEO. Did everyone forget what a 4-3 under is? In case you did, here are the relevant points.

Our defense is based on Pete Carroll's modification of Monte Kiffin's scheme. Here are the basics. Note what it says about the LEO: "The LEO can be a little bit smaller than a normal DE and Pete Carroll tends to like a more athletic and versatile body type for his Elephant position; a guy that can speed rush the QB but also react quick enough to control his gap. Must also be able to drop back into coverage occasionally in zone blitz situations." AKA, not Armstead. However, at the time of this article, Seahawks fans had seen 320lb Red Bryant play the 5-tech. This allowed Carroll to have his 5-tech two-gap, just like a 3-4 DE typically does, freeing up another player from gap responsibility.

This is what Carroll meant when he said we play a 4-3 with 3-4 personnel. Seattle's 2-gapping 5-tech largely went away went Michael Bennett came aboard, but other teams like Jacksonville have used bigger, 3-4 DE-sized, guys as their 5-techs like Jared Odrick and Tyson Alualu. Of course their most successful player there by far was Calais Campbell who signed in 2017 with the Jaguars after playing 3-4 DE with the Cardinals for 9 years. I forget, which 49er have we seen repeatedly compared to Campbell?

In case you don't follow other teams, Campbell was first team All-Pro, accumulating 17 sacks and a ridiculous +55 (or 93.5, depending on the scoring system used) PFF grade. I guarantee you no one in Jacksonville ever questioned his scheme fit. Of course they didn't try and make him play LEO either. If you'd like one more thought experiment about how easy it is to fit a 3-4 DL into a 4-3 under, take a look at this article from Niners Nation in 2011. The photo is just as entertaining.

To summarize: Due to rawness (year 1), injury (year 2), and ill advised position switch plus injury (year 3), we have not been able to see what Armstead is capable of. If he's even half as good as Calais Campbell he's worth an extension. And frankly, given how dominant he was in 2016 camp (the last time he was both healthy and at his natural weight) I have no reason to think "half as good" might be underselling him. His PRP stats do tell us something important that total sacks would miss. His injuries are frustrating but there's no reason to think he will continue being injured. Finally, he is a perfect scheme fit at 5-tech.

So where do we go in 2018? I have no idea what the coaching staff would do but here's what I would do. Get Armstead back to 295 and put him at 5-tech on the strong side where he belongs. Thomas plays LEO on base downs (this is assuming we don't sign or draft a 3 down LEO... personally I think anyone we could draft would be best served as a situational pass rusher year 1 anyway). In subpackages there would appear to be a logjam but that's ok. The trio of Armstead, Thomas, and Buckner can rotate, keeping everyone fresh. It doesn't have to be an equal rotation either. If one of Armstead or Thomas are not producing in the pass rush role, the other may get more snaps. At the very least, it would give the team one good year of evaluating Armstead in a situation where they are not setting him up to fail. I think they owe him that.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.