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49ers 90-in-90: DL Solomon Thomas

Breaking down the 90 players on the 49ers offseason roster in 90 posts (over 90 or so days). Today is defensive lineman Solomon Thomas.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The pre-draft evaluation on Solomon Thomas pegged him as an excellent run defender that needed to develop his pass rush skills. At best, he was the second coming of Michael Bennett; a penetrating one-gap force that teams could deploy across the defensive line depending on the situation. At worst? He’d end up a man without a country — too small for the interior, and too limited to be a force on the edge.

At Stanford Thomas excelled along the interior. He played, by his estimate, between the tackles about 85% of the time. Yet when he arrived in Santa Clara for training camp the 49ers played Thomas almost exclusively on the edge. The preseason trend continued through 2017 with Thomas playing 70% of his snaps on the edge.

Despite a new full-time position, Thomas still put together a strong season as a run defender. Solly routinely abused tight ends in the run game. His 21 run stops were good enough for 9th amongst 4-3 defensive ends. His 7.7 run stop percentage was actually better than Michael Bennett (7.3%).

But the 3rd overall pick brings with it a certain degree of expectation. And the weight of those expectations magnified Thomas’ ineffectiveness at getting after the quarterback. Six rookies finished the season with more sacks than Thomas. If you extend the pass rushing lens to pressures, hits, and sacks Thomas still put together an underwhelming 2017. His pass rushing productivity ranked him 36th our of 39 4-3 defensive ends.

Basic info

Age: 22
Experience: 1 accrued season
Height: 6’3”
Weight: 273 lbs.

Cap Status

Thomas signed a four-year rookie deal worth $28.1 million. The deal was fully guaranteed due to his draft status. His 2018 cap number is $6.4 million.

Why he might improve in 2018

The 49ers are finally coming to their senses and playing Thomas at weak side defensive end, a more natural position for someone with his athletic profile. Playing on the weak side means Thomas will see fewer double teams in the run game, allowing his fantastic run stopping ability to shine in more one-on-one situations. The team also seems to recognize that moving Thomas inside to rush the passer will also get the most out of the first round pick. If Thomas also sees an increase in pass snaps from the interior, as Saleh intimated at the end of last season, Thomas could unlock the pass-rushing ability that saw him earn the 6th highest pass rushing grade among FBS defensive tackles in 2016.

Why he might regress in 2018

A regression for Thomas, given his rookie season, would be a surprise. He started with a limited camp and learned a new position all while adjusting to the speed of the NFL. Even if regression isn’t likely the true worry is that his development curve remains flat. While yes, he is a great run defender, teams don’t succeed by drafting run defenders with the 3rd overall pick. He needs to develop into something more to make the pick worthwhile.

Developing a pass rush is not unheard of. And at the same time it’s not easy. If Thomas is not able to turn the proverbial and literal corner as a pass rusher even after the position switch it would be a major disappointment.

Odds of making the roster

While “making the roster” is the core question of this series, the real question with Thomas is whether he’ll live up to the billing of a 3rd overall pick. I think the position switch coupled with a near of NFL experience has Thomas primed for a breakout year.