Heading into the 2018 season, it seemed like the defense line was, in general, one of the most talented positional groups on the roster. Obviously, questions at the LEO position persisted throughout the offseason and into the regular season, with replacement level talent Cassius Marsh acting as the primary pass rusher. His sack total, 5.5, while helpful, was concentrated around two games, and he was nearly non-existent as a credible threat throughout the season. Arik Armstead quietly had a good season as the big end, and obviously DeForest Buckner had a monster of a season. Rotational defender and fan favorite Ronald Blair made a surprisingly large impact with his opportunities, often looking like a guy who might conceivably earn a starting role on a different roster.
And then, there’s Solomon Thomas. The very first selection (former 3rd overall pick) of the Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch era has failed to live up to expectations. Although he has proven himself a capable run defender in the NFL, his pre-draft hype as an interior pass rusher has not quite shown up, yet. As with most things, the culprit is likely to be a mixture of causes, and there should be no doubt that his coaching through two years should shoulder a portion of the blame. Without a clearly defined role, and seemingly played as an afterthought, Solomon Thomas has yet to make a name for himself, outside of fans kicking around the title of “bust”. New defensive line coach Kris Kocurek will be tasked with matching Thomas’ skill set to a role within the defense - the progress made next year will obviously be well-scrutinized, as the decision to pick up the 5th year option may hang in the balance.
In other news, the 49ers declined to pick up NT Earl Mitchell’s 2019, in an expected move. Earlier in the offseason, former second-stringer and currently presumed starter DJ Jones mentioned that he had hoped Mitchell would have been able to stick around longer, perhaps foreshadowing a cut that had yet to be announced. Well, that announcement has been made, and the 49ers will save close to seven million dollars over the next two years, carrying slightly over two million in dead cap. More importantly, however, is that the move opens the door for a younger player, who had proven capable of filling in admirably, but who also likely has room to grow - at 31, there’s no doubt that Mitchell’s talent had been maxed out.
This offseason looks to finally bring in some answers along the defensive line. Although the Solomon Thomas question looms large, the more pressing issue is that of the edge rusher. With an enormous amount of cap space and a high value first round pick, the team is well situated to address that roster hole with high-level talent, something that, I’m sure, will remain the headline of much of the offseason chatter.
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