Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports



San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead hits the 2017 season in a new pass-rushing role -- one in which he'll either thrive or struggle.


2017 will be a make-or-break year for San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead.

Both general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have made it clear they won't let draft picks and roster moves, made by the previous regime, influence how they construct the current roster. So just because Armstead was a first-round pickup back in the 2015 NFL Draft doesn't mean he's immune from the vast changes the Niners have undergone already and will undergo in the future.

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Yet that doesn't mean Armstead is an immediate castoff either.

Armstead enters 2017 as a player without an ideal position. Sure, an impressive 2016 preseason and training camp convinced many fans he would be the real deal. But a nagging shoulder injury limited the 6-foot-7 former University of Oregon product to just eight games over the course of the season.

It's hard to gauge how much this hindered his maturation. But it did hurt his ability to defend against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Armstead's 2016 run-stopping grade was a lowly 39.1, which was worst among all interior defenders.

At least the injury doesn't appear to be a problem entering 2017.

San Francisco's defensive line is going to be a bit crowded entering this season. Thanks to the first-round addition of former Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas in the NFL Draft, the Niners will have to figure out how to configure their D-line with Thomas, Armstead, DeForest Buckner and free-agent pickup nose tackle Earl Mitchell, along the defensive front. And this doesn't include depth players like Quinton Dial, Ronald Blair or D.J. Jones.

What the 49ers are planning to do is place Armstead in more of a strict pass-rushing role. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, is likely going to slate Armstead as the team's LEO pass-rusher -- the spot typically reserved for a 4-3 right defensive end.

He could be the favorite to start in this role. The only other ideal candidate, linebacker Aaron Lynch, apparently showed up to minicamp 20 pounds overweight. And after a disappointing 2016 season, in which he registered a mere 1.5 sacks, Lynch is no favorite to stay on the roster either.

The problem is Armstead isn't exactly built for this kind of role. He's an interior pass-rusher and not someone known for bending and getting around the edge -- staples for any edge rusher or premier outside linebacker in a pass-rushing role.

But Armstead's positive traits, notably his size, could make him a matchup nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. And if he isn't tasked with defending much against the run, it's not hard to envision the third-year pro as a prolific pass-rusher taking advantage of a unique situation.

So what should we expect from Armstead after this position switch?

On one hand, Armstead's production against the pass could skyrocket. Considering the Niners are boasting two other first-round picks along the D-line, teams will have to "pick their poison," essentially.

At the same time, Armstead may either take too much time adjusting to this new role or not flourish in it at all. And considering how vast San Francisco's rebuild has been already, the latter scenario isn't going to be a good one if it happens.

Needless to say, Armstead's 2017 campaign will be of the utmost importance to his future with the 49ers.

Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise and 49ers Webzone. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to @PeterPanacy on Twitter.