Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


Where does Solomon Thomas fit on the 49ers’ defensive line?

May 20, 2020 at 7:15 AM2


The San Francisco 49ers declined to pick up the fifth-year option for DE Solomon Thomas, who is being labeled as a "bust" by analysts and fans alike. Expectations are high for a third overall draft pick, and Thomas has been unable to live up to the hype. So, what exactly went wrong with the development of Solomon Thomas?

The 2016 49ers were abysmal on the defensive side of the ball, ranking 32nd overall, allowing 406.4 total yards per game and ranking in the bottom half of the league with only 33 team sacks. The 49ers desperately needed a game-changing defensive end, who could generate pressure against opposing quarterbacks and set the edge against the run. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the 49ers filled that need by selecting Thomas, who was considered one of the nation's top pass-rushers, with the third overall pick.

Thomas had a terrific collegiate career, capping it off with distinguished accolades such as First-Team All-Pac 12, Third-Team All-American, and was heralded as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, earning him the coveted Morris Trophy. Pro Football Focus gave Thomas a 92.0 run-defense grade (1st overall) and 86.9 pass-rushing grade (6th overall) among FBS interior defensive linemen in 2016. Solomon Thomas made sense for a team desperate to stop the run, while adding pressure to opposing quarterbacks.

Despite being considered as one of the best collegiate defensive linemen, there were question marks about his size and ability to play outside the tackles at the NFL level. It was evident the San Francisco 49ers planned to make Solomon Thomas a defensive end in their base 4-3 scheme.

In his rookie season, Thomas was initially slotted behind Tank Carradine as a right defensive end. The issue with this idea, however, was that Thomas had never shown any ability to be an effective edge rusher in college, so expecting him to thrive at this position in the NFL was asking a lot and was a risky proposition.

Thomas weighed in at 273 pounds at the NFL combine, which would have made him more suitable as an interior lineman, where he played over 90 percent of his collegiate snaps. However, after drafting Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner with their previous first-round picks, the 49ers were forced to play Thomas on the edge and hope he would be able to change his style of play at the most difficult level in football. Many critics and fans were skeptical with the team utilizing three first-round picks, in a span of four years, on defensive line players.

During his rookie campaign, Thomas lined up on the outside edge on 71 percent of his 696 total snaps. According to PFF grades, he earned an overall 55.0 grade, with a pass-rush grade of 52.7 and displaying one of the worst pressure rates of any defensive lineman in the league. It was apparent Thomas did not have the size or necessary skills to beat opposing offensive tackles off the edge, as he was often pushed off the line and wiped out of the play.

The following season, the 49ers neglected to address their defensive line and, once again, relied on Thomas to play the majority of his snaps as an outside edge defender. The results were the same as Thomas proved to be ineffective on the outside, generating only 26 pressures and just one sack in his sophomore season. Thomas played a total of 644 snaps, with 52 percent of those snaps being in pass-rush situations.

Thomas did show improvements at stopping the run during his second year, but his pass-rush ability was still disappointing, especially for a former third overall pick. Teams are not looking for a run-stopping defensive end in a pass-heavy league. Edge rushers need to be able to get to the quarterback.

In 2019, the 49ers made significant improvements to their front four by drafting Nick Bosa with the second overall pick and trading for DE Dee Ford. These personnel moves shuffled Thomas into a reserve slot where his snap counts diminished significantly, as he played a more rotational role along the defensive line.

In 2019, Thomas played a total of 425 snaps (271 snaps fewer than his rookie season), with 63% of those snaps being in passing situations, where he continued to struggle winning battles off the edge and applying pressure. He tallied a total of 15 solo tackles, and just 2 sacks.

Over the course of his short career, Solomon Thomas has rushed the passer 1,049 times and won a dismal 9.2 percent of those reps, according to PFF. Thomas has proven he is more effective as a pass-rusher when lined up as an interior defensive lineman in his limited opportunities, where his overall PFF grade jumps to 67.4 as a 3-Tech DL. However, he has been unable to solidify himself as a dominant force, regardless of his positioning or the situation he is placed in.

Was Solomon Thomas simply a wasted selection, or have the 49ers failed to utilize his strengths and talents in the correct way? It will be interesting to see how he is deployed in the upcoming season. Will Robert Saleh and company finally decide to play him between the tackles as a 3-Tech? Or will they continue to line him up on the edge in pass-rushing situations?

I am not sure where Solomon Thomas fits into this crowded defensive line, but I hope to see him lined up in the interior, where he has had more success pressuring opposing signal callers. This is truly a make or break year for Thomas. If he is unable to improve in passing situations, he will likely be moving on to another team next season.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


2 Comments

  • Candlestick Point
    Really have been rooting for this guy to succeed - and this is a great analysis of how he’s been wasted on as an edge rusher. Good news is, he’s so young still and he’s shown flashes of maturity and stuff that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. With Bosa, Kinlaw, Ford, DJ Jones, Armstead, a healthy Kentavius Street, RB3, And Julian Taylor, this unit is amongst the deepest in the league even with the loss of co-defensive captain Deforest Buckner. There are several other D lineman on the roster so Solly is going to be in for the fight of his life so far as a pro. Another good sign for Thomas is that he’s stayed healthy - I think I saw a lot of growth In him maturity wise on the field last season. He could become very rugged inside teamed with Kinlaw and swapped out with Arik in situational downs. We need help from the secondary to keep their guys locked up down field but between Bosa and hopefully a 16 game Dee Ford, Solly has a real chance to get the right chemistry finally and put together a full season what we all know he’s capable of.
    May 22, 2020 at 9:32 PM
    1
  • Mood Indigo
    "I am not sure where Solomon Thomas fits into this crowded defensive line," It's probably not that hard to imagine him as a rotational piece at 3T.
    May 20, 2020 at 8:50 AM
    1

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