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What led to former 49ers first-round pick Solomon Thomas’ breakout season with the Raiders?

After failing to find consistent success in San Francisco, former 49ers top pick Solomon Thomas is having a breakout season with the Raiders.

Miami Dolphins v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Former 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas is quietly having the best success of his career in his first season with the Las Vegas Raiders. Despite playing less than half of the Raiders defensive snaps this season, Thomas has already racked up ten quarterback pressures and 2.5 sacks. After struggling to generate consistent pressure throughout his career in San Francisco, he seems to have found success in a new situation.

Thomas was the first player drafted during Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s tenure with the 49ers. However, with a significant rebuild ahead of them, the 49ers decided to ignore the top quarterback prospects in that year’s draft (Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson).

Initially picking second overall, the Niners identified Thomas as their top target and engineered a trade with the Chicago Bears to move down one selection in exchange for three mid-round picks. While the Bears drafted Trubisky to be their signal-caller of the future, the 49ers selected Thomas to try and build an elite defensive line.

However, Thomas never lived up to the lofty expectations that came with his high selection. In four seasons with the 49ers, he appeared in 48 games (30 starts) and recorded 95 tackles and just five sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas only pressured the quarterback on 6.8% of his pass-rushing snaps with the Niners, compared to 11.0% this season.

Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley runs a similar 4-3 scheme to what the 49ers ran during Thomas’ tenure. After all, Bradley hired former Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh back when he worked for the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars. While that explains why Thomas has so seamlessly transitioned into the Raiders defense, it still leaves one question: what has Las Vegas done to unlock Thomas’ potential?

On paper, the answer looks simple. First, they allowed Thomas to play more at his best position.

Thomas moved around the defensive line at Stanford but always projected best at defensive tackle. However, the 49ers already had two great interior defensive linemen (DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead) when they drafted Thomas. Without a spot for him on the inside, Thomas was forced to consistently play at worse positions.

During his time with the 49ers, Thomas played 77.5% of his snaps on the outside, lining up on more than half of his snaps outside of opposing offensive tackles at the REO and LEO positions. Far from the ideal alignment for a player of his skillset.

Thomas’ usage became more balanced once the Niners acquired edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa. When Buckner was traded to the Colts before the 2020 season, it seemed like Thomas would finally get his first extended opportunity on the interior line. Then, in the second game of last season, Thomas suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

The Raiders signed Thomas to a one-year deal this offseason and have deployed him all around their defensive line. Still, he’s playing inside at the highest rate of his career (57.5% of his snaps) and is only lining up outside the tackles on 9.0% of snaps.

The 49ers' decision to pass on other prospects at the top of the 2017 NFL Draft to select Thomas has generated plenty of criticism. Even in his breakout this year, Thomas is far from an elite defensive lineman. Yet, it’s hard not to question the impact of San Francisco’s development strategy.

In Thomas’ first two NFL seasons, he played just 13.3% of his snaps on the interior defensive line. Given the sizable adjustment players have to make from the college to professional ranks; it’s hard not to wonder if his development was stunted by the Niners' decision to play him almost exclusively on the edge.

The Las Vegas Raiders are getting better production out of Solomon Thomas than the 49ers were ever able to in his four years in San Francisco. Thomas hasn’t overhauled his body or playstyle. He’s not playing in a different defensive system. He’s simply getting more opportunities to play at his best position. The fact that it took joining a new team might be a significant indictment of the 49ers organization and its plan for drafting and developing young players.