Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Was Solomon Thomas the Right Pick at No. 3 Overall?

Sep 11, 2017 at 8:30 AM

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In only eleven snaps on defense before leaving the game with an injury that wound up being far less serious than it looked, Reuben Foster was able to show everyone why he was considered the top linebacker prospect in the 2017 draft. He had accumulated three quick solo tackles and broke up another pass before leaving the game early with a lower leg injury.

On the other hand, the 49ers' other first-round pick from the 2017 draft, Solomon Thomas, was available the entire game and played the third most snaps of any defensive lineman on the 49ers. Thomas had a relatively quiet game, netting two tackles, but more importantly, he was unable to generate any sort of pressure on Cam Newton. While this held true for just about all of the defensive players in week one, it is perhaps most disappointing coming from such a high draft choice.

Now, before this gets out of hand, let me make a couple of quick statements. Solomon Thomas is better known as a run defender, so it should be no surprise that the run defense is the stronger part of Thomas's game at this point. It is also important to note that this was his very first game of his career, and one game does not a career make.

Still, looking at the overall team makeup and the success of other rookies in week one of the NFL season, there are a number of reasons to question whether or not Solomon Thomas was the correct call back in April.

To start, when evaluating which positions on an NFL team need upgrades, it is important to look at the current roster to determine what talent is there and which players need to be replaced or upgraded. Going into the 2017 NFL draft, there were few position groups on the roster that did not need to be upgraded. The 2016 49ers were a mess, and that is evidenced by the fact that the team only kept 16 players from the 2016 roster on the 2017 team. However, there was one group that already had a lot of talent thanks to first-round picks being used there in 2015 and 2016 – the defensive line. DeForrest Buckner and Arik Armstead were already on the roster, and while neither have yet become dominant forces on the line, both had already shown considerable talent.

The problem here is that when penciling in starters back in April, the five-technique spot on the line looked like a certainty for Arik Armstead as it seemed to fit his strengths pretty well. Solomon Thomas might be a better fit, but Armstead was one of the few players on the team who likely did not need to be immediately upgraded. Instead, Thomas's addition to the team forced Armstead out to defensive end where he lost some weight in order to be able to better rush the passer. Alas, that did not happen throughout the preseason or against the Panthers.

The pass rush for a defense is among the most important aspects of an NFL team, and without one a team is going to have little chance of success on defense. This is abundantly obvious on the 49ers. So it was certainly no shock that Solomon Thomas was the choice when the 49ers selected him as he was perhaps the best option to get after the passer after Myles Garrett, who went first overall to the Browns. However, if neither he nor Armstead is able to put pressure on the quarterback, this means the team simply made a minor upgrade at the 5-technique spot on the defensive line, and likely will only keep one of them around in coming seasons.

If the team had few needs, a move like this is easily defensible. However, the team going into the 2017 draft had plenty of needs, and a few of those needs are still prevalent, including defensive back, wide receiver, offensive line, and quarterback.

After the trade with the Bears, the top quarterback in the draft was off the board, and it is clear the 49ers had no interest in taking Mitch Trubisky anyway. There were also no offensive linemen worthy of so high a draft pick. From there, things can get a bit more complicated.

At wide receiver, Corey Davis from Western Michigan was available and would end up going two spots later to the Tennessee Titans. Davis came out of college as the most productive wide receiver in FBS history and has great size and hands for the NFL. On a team where size at the wide receiver position is seriously needed, Davis would look to be a great fit. In his first week of action, Davis was very active for the Titans, pulling in six receptions for 69 yards and making some key plays for that team.

Taken immediately after Davis in the 2017 draft was Jamal Adams, an impressive safety out of LSU. Adams came into the NFL with the ability to play either safety spot, which means he could have been played at free safety while leaving Jimmie Ward at cornerback, where he has played for the first three years of his career. The impressive interception aside, Adams would have been a big upgrade over Jaquiski Tartt. Adams made some great plays in coverage on Sunday on a similarly talent-deprived Jets team and likely could have looked better if more than 19 of his 75 snaps actually came at safety instead of linebacker. When Jimmie Ward is finally able to play, Ward would make for an immediate upgrade over Dontae Johnson, giving the team a much better secondary. The team always wanted Ward to play FS, but if it was willing to move Armstead would it have done the same for Ward with an Adams selection?

Of course, it is also important to note that the 49ers allegedly had Reuben Foster as the number three player on their board. If the 49ers did decide to go with a player other than Thomas with the third overall pick, it is just as likely that they would have chosen Foster, which would have unknowingly stripped all the value out of that pick (since they would not have known they could have him as late as number 31 where they eventually traded up for him). And without knowing how else the 49ers board was set, it is impossible to guess who they may have taken at number 34 or what targets they may have had for trading back up into the first round.

As mentioned earlier, it was only the first game of the careers for all of these young players. Solomon Thomas could very well pressure Russel Wilson all day this upcoming Sunday and immediately put any sort of doubts aside for another day. Corey Davis and Jamal Adams may have each just played what will be the best games of their NFL careers. Only time will tell whether or not the 49ers made the right selections in the draft, and typically that time will come in a few years, not one game, even if that game was a relatively unimpressive debut for the number three overall pick in the 2017 draft.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Michael
    From the second they drafted him I knew it was the wrong pick. Jamal Adams should have been the selection. Our D-line needed a fast and lengthy edge rusher a la Aldon Smith. With Garrett off the board, our secondary needed major help and it's needed it for a while. Eric Reid is no cover specialist. Niners have little presence in the pass game and Jamal Adams has an incredibly high ceiling and could be elite much sooner than Thomas...if Thomas ever gets there at all.
    Sep 21, 2017 at 5:39 PM
    Response: You are correct. The edge rusher is what we needed, not an elite run-stopper at #3 (he's not elite yet, but I assume Solomon Thomas will get there in this category). This is what prompted the article. Without a premium edge rusher, the best defensive back or wide receiver made the most sense to me. At this point, defensive back is looking like a major need whereas the offense showed some significant improvement against the Rams, so maybe wide receiver can drop a bit behind the other big ones - quarterback, pass-rusher, offensive line, and defensive backs. Not necessarily in that order.
  • 49ers1
    1 game doesn't change the fact that Thomas has the tools and character to be successful. At #3? Yes. There was consensus across the board that he was a top 5 guy. Based upon what he did at Stanford, he is not a 20 sack a season lineman rather I expect a solid starter for many years that has an impact in defending the run and occasionally pressuring the QB.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 9:18 PM
    Response: I agree with you on all of this. But whether or not he is successful wasn't the point of the article. The question is whether or not we would have been better served going with someone at a larger position of need. I don't question Solomon Thomas or his run defense. I question if occasionally pressuring the QB is worth the #3 overall pick over a #1 big bodied WR or roaming FS.
  • scott
    Did the editors make the right pick by letting you post this article ???
    Sep 11, 2017 at 4:36 PM
  • SA
    Regardless of whoever is starting at that DE spot (Tank or Thomas), we need to find an elite LEO (aka Aldon Smith 2.0) in free agency or the draft. I agree that Thomas left a lot on the field in his first game. He faced a pretty darn good OL for his first real NFL action. However, he needs some help. Armstead and Dumervil at LEO are short-term plugs for a critical piece of this type of defense. If you get a dominant LEO, it helps with the interior rush and helps out the secondary. We basically need a new version of Brooks-J. Smith-McDonald-A. Smith. We really have two out of the four pieces right now.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 12:18 PM
    Response: Very good point - a dominant LEO would definitely help. I think there are a few candidates in the upcoming draft class who might be able to be the 10-12 sacks/year guy you want at that spot. Those guys are typically hard to find in free agency, so getting one in the draft is paramount to future success.
  • MidWestDynasty
    The overreaction is strong with the 49ers fans.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 12:12 PM
  • JM
    I believe Thomas will start getting in the groove as time goes on. A lot of teams were high on him and I think it comes down to adjusting to the strength and speed of the NFL. Having depth along the defensive line is not a bad problem. Though I may seem like a "Homer" I still believe we have a good team. I'm frustrated in losing but I don't see how the "Faithful" can be so negative after one game
    Sep 11, 2017 at 10:08 AM
    Response: I don't see this as being a "homer" - I think you have a good reason to be optimistic both for Thomas and the 49ers long-term. I tried to note that I recognized this was just one game. I will say that you are absolutely right that depth on the defensive line is not a bad problem to have, but in year one of a rebuild when starters are lacking at other positions, I think it is fair to question if that was the correct call.
  • Hector
    Starting with "what if" games,huh? What if pick somebody else instead of Thomas? What if Kareem Hunt was our RB instead of Joe Williams? What if make a push for Cousins before or during draft? What if Niners had signed McVay instead of Shanahan considering the different results get between them on week 1? While I want to believe Niners have tools for a playoff run but truth is would be a big success if we can get 6 wins with current roster. Again, this team has 6 seasons to put this ship back on sail after being sunk to the bottom for the last 2 seasons. We don't have enough talent to be a contender just like Harbaugh did in 2011 because those Niners already have talented players but misguided. Not easy to swallow but I just gonna keep my expectations low or forgotten until moment shows me something different...
    Sep 11, 2017 at 10:01 AM
    Response: I think some of those are great "what-if" questions. I also agree this season would be a huge success if the 49ers get to six wins (I thought four before the season started and might be second-guessing that a bit today). However, the "what-if" game is a part of the NFL, as one move creates a chain reaction of other moves. What if Marquise Goodwin catches that long bomb in the first quarter? How much different does the game look? Do the 49ers need to abandon a relatively solid run game with Hyde so soon? Do the Panthers get forced into an early mistake that further changes the game? It's just a part of it. In this case, I have nothing against Solomon Thomas, but I do question whether or not he was the correct pick third overall with greater needs on a long rebuild. To me, it only makes sense to take him third overall if he is going to improve the pass-rush. Through one game (and only one game) he has not. That could absolutely change as the season continues, don't get me wrong, but until his 49ers career is over (when things are finally set in stone), I will keep tabs on him and others that I thought might be in play for the team to see who would have made for the better pick.
  • Frank
    John...don't you think after just one game your question is just a tad premature? Think about it...the Panthers have a very solid OL...they did a very credible job of protecting Cam. Part of that was because the Niners didn't mount a pass rush...not Thomas, not Armstead, not Lynch...nobody. So, to pick out a rookie and ask the question you just did makes you look like an amateur reporter. Maybe after half of the season's in the books, you'd have a little more credibility asking that question.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 9:50 AM
    Response: Yes, I do think it is a tad premature to make a complete judgment (I tried to note a few times in the article that it was only one game). However, the question of my article was not whether Solomon Thomas could generate pressure in the long-term, it was a question of whether or not in year one of a rebuild, making a minor improvement on the defensive line was more important than selecting players at other positions at larger needs. I like Solomon Thomas as a player. I do still question if he was the correct call, or if he is so great a prospect that the 49ers absolutely could not afford to pass on him (which they thought they were initially doing by trading out of #2).
  • Nick
    He missed most of the off season because of school and already questioning his selection after one game? There wasn't a cornerback worth taking at 3, and Adams is a SS. I would have thought Malik Hooker would have been the pick but if Thomas plays like he should he will take a lot of pressure off our secondary. Nobody generated any pressure so obviously it was just a matter of being out performed physically. But overall our defense was good without the pressure will be better when it comes.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 9:45 AM
    Response: The Adams point is a very good one. I agree he would be a better fit at SS, but I do think you are underrating his versatility a bit. He manned the roaming safety spot starting in his Junior year at LSU, and it was expected he could do the same in the NFL. And I'm not thinking that Solomon Thomas needs to be a double-digit sack guy. But he literally did not register a single pressure. Given that Tank Carradine is the choice in run downs, one could expect the guy coming in on pass downs to generate a bit of pressure. You are correct, though - nobody on the team was able to do it (with the exception of Buckner, a bit inconsistently) and they were all out-performed physically.
  • Scott
    So everyone is clear that during rebuild stages with teams success does not come over night. The press along with impatient fans need to just chill and realize somethings have already improved and the rest will also over time. Anyone who expected what happened when Harbaugh arrived to happen again, must not know that Jimmy boy had 5 times the talent on his roster than Kyle has been handed, So take a pill and chill everyone. I think by week 6 or 7 things will start to Jell a little better.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 9:38 AM
    Response: Fair and excellent points. I have long expected this to be a three-year rebuild, and only predicted four wins for the season for this team. I think Shanahan was the right choice for head coach, and I would not worry much about him. The point of this article was only to question whether or not it would have been worth keeping Armstead at the 5-technique DL spot and spend the draft capital elsewhere instead of double dipping on a position where the 49ers already had plenty of talent. It is not to question if Solomon Thomas is a bust or not, especially since he was perfectly fine as a run defender against the Panthers.
  • DJ
    He'll probably be a solid player. But I don't ever see him becoming an All Pro type player. Thomas was probably better fit as a 3-4 DE which he was at Stanford.
    Sep 11, 2017 at 9:31 AM
    Response: I agree that he would have been a perfect fit as a 3-4 run-stopping DE, but he is still a fit in this defense. As for an All-Pro - time will tell on that one. If you were to rank the top tiers of players in the NFL as 1) All-Pro 2) Pro Bowl) 3) Good Starter, with lower tiers below that, I would say he'd most likely eventually fit in that second category.

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