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Could Solomon Thomas have a breakout year?

The San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman is getting some love, but can he turn things around?

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When the San Francisco 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas with the third pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, it was seen as an obvious pick. Some mocks had it predicted and analysts called it smart.

Unfortunately, Thomas didn’t exactly pan out like some had hoped. For 2017, Thomas had three sacks. By comparison, Myles Garrett, a person taken only two picks earlier at number 1, had seven sacks and played in fewer games due to nagging injuries.

It begs the question: what happened? For a full rundown of Thomas’ rookie season, there’s a great write-up from the folks at Pro Football Focus identifying Thomas’ less than stellar year. But what’s interesting to note is how they pointed out Thomas’ struggles can be traced to him playing on the outside:

The root of his struggles lie in being played out of position as a rookie. Thomas is something of a tweener when it comes to body type (just 273-pounds at the NFL combine), but is fundamentally an interior lineman not an edge rusher. In his final season at Stanford, he played a true edge alignment on fewer than 10.0 percent of his snaps (9.4), but that number became 71.1 percent in 2017.

The 49ers had previously spent first-round draft picks on Arik Armstead and Buckner, both of whom were ostensibly interior linemen as well, so attempted to cheat their alignment puzzle by shoehorning Thomas into an edge rushing spot as the player most likely to handle that role.

It didn’t go well.

It’s not like playing Thomas on the outside was a bad idea. Several draft profiles have mentioned his tweener weight and how he can play both inside and out, though which he’d succeed at was anyone’s guess. His coach at Stanford, David Shaw even said the plan was to move him back and forth his senior year, which never happened since he registered for the draft. Important to note was Shaw planned on moving Thomas inside on pass-rush downs and only would line him up on the outside for first or second down running plays.

Seems like the 49ers were doing the opposite of that. While it’s not a bad idea, putting him on the edge is still perhaps unnatural and causes more time to get acclimated along with the mental aspects of the game. Everyone remembers Tank Carradine and his movement (and weight gain) to defensive tackle in a 3-4 (something very different than what he did in college). Carradine found the weight gain to play tackle uncomfortable and the 49ers eventually moved him back to his natural position. Obviously, Carradine’s situation is a bit more extreme than Thomas’ but it’s a good example of what happens when moved to unnatural roles.

Hopefully the 49ers have zeroed in on the problem and hopefully for Thomas’ sake, if he’s put on the outside more he provides better production than last season. The 49ers are going to be moving him in and out of the LEO position for 2018, so we can see how that goes. With their lack of edge-rusher it’s a bit concerning, so for Thomas’ sake, maybe he can get it together both on the inside and out. Bleacher report recently had Thomas listed as the 49ers’ breakout player for 2017, citing Thomas’ comments about getting over the mental game.

Do you think Thomas will have a breakout year?