Late yesterday evening, I was scratching notes together for a look at the interior defensive linemen. My list of trench warriors for the San Francisco 49ers isn't shocking, but we'll get into the specifics of the position group later.

When I jotted down veteran Arik Armstead's name, I took a brief pause and asked the Great Magnet, "How does he fit on the defensive line this year?"

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We know the 49ers lack a real star at the edge position. Armstead, who played 236 snaps as an edge defender in 2017, has not been a roaring success. Further, the team does not have an edge player on today's roster who could be considered a diamond in the rough.

I have faith that general manager John Lynch tried to find a player to dominate the end of the line; nobody can speak for Lynch, but it's possible he felt the available players in free agency and the draft did not have the talent necessary to make an impact.

Before we get any further, I want to make a few things clear.

  • Yes, I know the 49ers picked up Armstead's fifth-year option a few weeks ago.
  • Yes, I know this does not require the 49ers to keep Armstead.
  • Sure, it's entirely possible the team could trade Armstead.
  • Of course, Armstead could bounce back from another surgery and finally have a stellar season.

Why, yes! There are a lot of what-ifs with Armstead, which might make for a fun read so long as we all keep an open mind.

Keep Armstead, Move Him Inside, Surround Him With Ability


At a glance, the 49ers have an interior defensive line that is stacked with talented starters and high-quality reserve players. Before the negative feedback, I'm listing Armstead as an interior defender for two reasons:

  1. He isn't productive as an edge rusher.
  2. Playing inside gives the 49ers a rotation of interior players that is second to none in the NFL.

Therefore, for discussion's sake, let's assume the following players make this year's interior roster:

DeForest Buckner
Solomon Thomas
Sheldon Day
Earl Mitchell
Arik Armstead

If I'm defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, the above lineup is the rotation I want in the trench for 16 games. Buckner is an uncaged monster, and he's coming off his best season as a professional. Side note: How a panel of so-called experts did not name Buckner to an All-Pro team is an insult to football.

I'd like to see Saleh move Thomas inside, keeping him no more extensive than a 3-technique. Like Armstead, Thomas did not play well as an edge pass rusher. According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas had significantly more pressures playing inside – one pressure per 4.3 rushes – than when he lined up on edge – one pressure per 14.5 rushes.

The 49ers received a gift when they claimed defensive lineman Sheldon Day off waivers last November. Day is entering his third season in the NFL, and while he does not have statistics that jump off the page, he's an underrated interior defender.

The 49ers' roster lists Earl Mitchell as the only authentic nose tackle, though he only played 27 snaps at that position. More often, he was lining up in the A-gap on either side of the center. Last year, he started in 16 games and made 22 solo tackles.

Last season, the 49ers' opponents attempted 491 rushes, the highest number in the NFL. Even with an injury-riddled defense, the 49ers allowed a mere 3.9 yards per rush attempt, which was one of the lowest totals in the league.

The reasons to keep Armstead are clear. He'll be part of a stellar group of interior linemen, which may help him stave off another injury.

Further, the 49ers defense held its own last season with a broken defense; I'd like to think it can improve with a roster of healthy players and a rejuvenated Armstead.

Trade Armstead; But For Who?


Unfortunately, the arguments above are looking at the defense through a vacuum and do not take into consideration the absolute need for a gifted edge rusher. Today, the 49ers have a handful of players who can fill the role, but nobody who forces an opponent to quake from terror.

Cassius Marsh and Jeremiah Attaochu are quality players, but these men are not superstars. Ronald Blair is entering his third year in the NFL and strikes zero fear in the hearts of the opposition. Unless the 49ers trade for a dominant edge player, sixteen offensive coordinators will attack the soft edges of the 49ers defense with power runs, stretch plays, and play-action bootlegs.

Indeed, the argument to keep Armstead ignores his lack of production as a professional football player.

Armstead hasn't played up to his first-round potential. He's missed 18 games due to injury and has only 31 career solo tackles and six quarterback sacks. On Friday, news broke he went under the blade again earlier this offseason.

Athletes succumb to injury, which isn't my issue with Armstead. He's merely not developing as a first-round draft choice should.

Through six games last year, playing 236 snaps as an edge defender, Armstead had eight solo tackles, eight assists, and 1.5 sacks. Assuming he did not injure his hand, he was on pace for over 20 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

These are not the numbers a team wants to see from a first-round choice coming into his fourth year of play.

Between now and training camp is an ideal time to shop Armstead around for an edge player who will benefit the team and take pressure off Marsh and Attaochu coming into the season.

The Best Option: Keep Armstead and Move Him Inside


Armstead may benefit from a change of scenery and a fresh start with another team. And he's probably the 49ers' best chance to lure skilled defensemen to Santa Clara.

The meat-hook reality: There isn't a team in the NFL who will give up a player like Von Miller or Brandon Graham for Armstead. The best the 49ers could muster in a trade would be an average defender, which leaves the defense in the same or slightly worse position.

There is nothing wrong with admitting that Armstead is not the edge defender the team thought he might become. Sometimes, players don't develop well at a position and need to see the game from a different spot.

Further, with a limited market for edge defenders and few options for a trade, Lynch is best to keep Armstead this season. As noted above, moving Armstead to an interior position may result in increased production from him. Additionally, rotating Buckner, Thomas, and Armstead throughout the game is a lineup I'd like to see on the field this fall.