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Solomon Thomas could prove key to the 49ers pass rush hopes

The 49ers are counting on a whole host of parts to get this puzzle in order.

The biggest question for the San Francisco 49ers heading into the 2018 season is the pass rush. Yes, Jimmy Garoppolo is not a sure thing at quarterback, but we’ve seen enough to at least have optimism he can break out even further in his first full season as a starter. With the pass rush, DeForest Buckner offers optimism and we saw some solid work from Cassius Marsh late in the season, it’s hard to point to it as a unit that has a strong chance of success this season.

We’re spending this week previewing the 49ers 2018 season with Football Outsiders writer Carl Yedor (purchase their 2018 Almanac here), and I had to get their thoughts on the pass rush. I opened by asking them about the one addition to the unit, Jeremiah Attaochu.

Attaochu had a solid sophomore season in 2015 when he finished with six sacks, 11 hits, and 21.5 hurries, but injuries have derailed the early part of his career. He’s still only 25, meaning he is young enough that there is still room for growth there. Unfortunately for him, he just hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and until he proves he can stay healthy, I would not count on him being the answer for the San Francisco pass rush.

Attaochu was one of the workhorses in the 49ers Week 2 game against the Houston Texans, but it was not an overly productive stretch. Cassius Marsh would seem to be looking at a sizable role on the edge, but Attaochu has not overly impressive, failing to get consistent pressure on the quarterback through two games. He’s only signed to a one-year deal, and the 49ers could very well bring Elvis Dumervil back into the fold if they don’t think Attaochu offers enough.

I followed up asking him about the 49ers “big three” of Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, and DeForest Buckner.

The talent is clearly there though, and when you add him to the trio of first-round picks, there is quite the pedigreed collection of young guys in that defensive line room. Armstead and Thomas have not shown much in the way of pass rush thus far in their careers, though Thomas is only entering his second season and Armstead has been injured for major parts of the past two years. Buckner has been excellent even when the 49ers as a whole have not, so he is definitely not part of the problem. He was unlucky to only end up with three sacks last season, and if his surface-level numbers shoot up in 2018, it will just be a continuation of strong play. The San Francisco pass rush will look a lot better if he can convert a few more of his hits and hurries into sacks, hopefully lessening the impact of Elvis Dumervil’s departure.

I’ll disagree a little bit with Yedor’s assessment of Armstead. His injury comment is spot on, but when healthy, Armstead has been among Pro Football Focus’ leaders in pass rush efficiency. Like Buckner he did not regularly close the deal, but he was getting pressure. But the injury problem is a big one. He has missed ten games over the past two seasons, and missing most of 2018 training camp with a hamstring injury does not bode well for that pattern.

Thomas could be the guy to watch in this whole group. We know Buckner is on the verge of breaking out, but Thomas is only entering year two and is seeing his role re-shuffled. He moved to the LEO edge role in the team’s 4-3 looks, and will move inside on passing downs. It seems to be a role to which he is better-suited, and if he can take to that role, it could be big for this unit.

A big factor to offer at least some semblance of optimism is the youth of the group. It doesn’t offer much in terms of concrete proof this group is going somewhere this season, but it’s something to build on.

The biggest thing working in their favor is how young that whole group is. All three of those former first-round picks will be 25 or younger, so that natural growth from experience is the biggest factor in their favor for developing a more fearsome pass rush. The 49ers will need them to do grow like that if they want to outperform their poor defensive projection for this season.