The San Francisco 49ers dealt with a ton of injuries to big-name players during the 2020 NFL regular season. Losing Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Richard Sherman, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo for long stretches killed any hope of returning to the Super Bowl.
One player who went down early in the season and didn’t get mentioned as much is defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. The No. 3 overall pick from the 2017 NFL Draft tore his ACL in Week 2 against the New York Jets.
The 25-year-old is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent after the team declined his fifth-year option prior to the 2020 season. With the pandemic’s economic fallout forcing a league-wide cap crunch, it’s tough to see how Solly fits in in San Francisco’s plans going forward.
The Niners will have up to 40 players who will be up for new deals, including left tackle Trent Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who will be expensive. Add to that the impending extension for All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner, and it’s easy to see why the 49ers’ front office needs to be creative when filling out the roster.
In one of his first significant moves as general manager, John Lynch traded back one spot to pick Thomas No. 3 in 2017, but Solly has failed to live up to expectations. He has recorded 95 tackles and just 6 sacks since becoming a pro.
When San Francisco turned the corner to become a contender in 2019, and the defensive line became elite, Thomas fell down the pecking order. He played greater than 50% of the defensive snaps just three times in 16 games during the 2019 season. Those numbers came down when the stakes were the highest in the playoffs, where Thomas’ high was playing 37% of the defensive snaps in the blowout win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game of the 2019 season.
Pro Football Focus has 2018 as Thomas’ best year, where it graded him at 62.8. He did well against the run his first two seasons, but his lack of pass-rushing skills have been evident from day one.
Lynch and co. have several decisions to make with the defensive line, which is considered one of the team’s strong points. Spotrac project’s Thomas’ market value at $5.6 million heading into free agency, which is probably too rich for the Niners.
There are six other defensive linemen up for new deals: Kerry Hyder, D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair, Ezekiel Ansah, Dion Jordan and Jordan Willis.
Hyder had the best season of the bunch, leading the team with 8.5 sacks. Jones started 14 games for the 49ers in 2020, finishing with 20 total tackles (seven tackles for losses) and 3 sacks.
Blair is a holdover from the Trent Baalke regime. The 27-year-old was picked in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft and a productive rookie year. He wound up missing 10 games of the 2017 season before putting up 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 14 QB hits in 2018.
After tearing his ACL in Week 10 of the 2019 campaign, Blair hasn’t returned to action.
Jordan and Willis were fill-ins on the injury-ravaged line, while Ansah’s tenure with the team lasted just two games before he suffered a season-ending injury.
None of the other six players had the expectations that Thomas did. He was the first draft pick made by Lynch and Shanahan and was supposed to anchor the line for years to come.
Many people are cheering for Thomas to succeed, especially after dealing with his sister’s suicide early in 2018. He has been an advocate for people going through mental health issues and opened up about his struggles dealing with the trauma of Ella’s death.
Hopefully, he is able to continue his NFL career, but it remains to be seen if that will happen in San Francisco.
Which free-agent defensive lineman do you think will be back with the 49ers next season? What do you think would be a fair deal for Thomas?