When the 49ers switched to the Seattle style 4-3 under defense, it seemed fairly obvious that Arik Armstead would be playing the Michael Bennett, ‘big end’ role. However, two unpredictable events served to ensure those expectations did not come to fruition. First, the 49ers decided that Armstead was their best option at weak side defensive end. Second, Tank Carradine played well enough at the big end spot that the 49ers did not need to move Armstead over to the strong side for any length of time to make up for poor play.
By midseason, the 49ers appeared to have recognized that Armstead was a better fit at big end than Solomon Thomas. We saw the team play more with a left and right end when Armstead and Carradine were together on the field. This was only brief however, as Armstead broken his hand and ended up on injured reserve for the second straight season.
This offseason, the 49ers have locked Armstead in as their big end, and he will compete for pass rushing snaps as an interior player. Armstead, who is back to 292 pounds, demonstrated greater prowess against the run in 2017 than in previous years, as well as retaining his threat as a pass rusher. This bodes well for 2018 as he looks to make sure he will spend his fifth year in the NFL as a 49er.
Experience: 3 accrued seasons
Armstead is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract. He has a cap hit of $3,131,746 and an identical dead cap value if he doesn’t make the roster. The 49ers exercised his fifth year option for 2019, with a salary of $9,046,000. It is currently guaranteed for injury, and becomes fully guaranteed if he is on the 90-man roster next March at the start of the 2019 league year.
Why he might improve in 2018
Despite being a unique physical specimen, Armstead was never really the right player to play weak side end in the 49ers’ scheme. He showed his prowess at strong side end in a very small sample size last season, and this year he should have more opportunity to play at the position (injury permitting). His combination of quickness, technique, and power was often too much even for offensive tackles. He is capable of absolutely dominating tight ends, making him an obvious candidate for a breakout season, even if it is “just” as an elite run defender. When you throw in his already potent threat as a pass rusher (a threat that has admittedly not been borne out in sacks), Armstead is certainly a player who can be a major part of this 49ers’ defense moving to the next level.
Why he might regress in 2018
Firstly, Armstead will be hoping to stay healthy — he got hurt for the second straight season, just as he started to come into his own last season. Another problem could be if he finds himself as just the third best interior rusher on the 49ers. While that should ensure he gets a decent amount of snaps as an interior rusher, not being one of the go to players would represent a setback for someone whose best trait thus far has been his pass rushing. DeForest Buckner is a stud, but rookie Solomon Thomas did not show a great deal as an interior rusher last year. Armstead should be beating him out. If not, he’s likely in for a limited role and another season of failing to live up to expectations.
Odds of making the roster
Armstead should be a lock for the roster, as the starting big end and (on the evidence available) the second best interior rusher. His health could be crucial to the 49ers taking the next step. Stoutness against the run and a more impactful pass rush are major factors in a teams’ success, and Armstead can have a major influence on both.