The San Francisco 49ers came into this season with one of the weakest rosters in the league. The equivalent comparison would be to a member of your fantasy football league who couldn’t be bothered to draft on their own and just autodrafted. The desecration of the 49ers roster was certainly hurt by surprise retirements and departures in free agency, but make no mistake, this was solely GM Trent Baalke’s doing and undoing.
All that being said, one of the few strengths of this roster leading up to training camp and preseason was the defensive line. The amount of draft and free agency capital that has been spent on this one group is near astronomical compared to other positions. Take the offensive line for example. Had we spent a comparable amount of draft capital on the offensive line as we had on the defensive line, the 49ers would likely have a top 10 offense and RB Carlos Hyde would be pushing 1,200 yards each season.
So after multiple first round picks, millions in free agency money and years of headache, where does the defensive line stand? A group that, as of halfway through the Great Rebuild of 2017, is just middle of the pack. And that’s being nice. So where does the team and the defensive line go from here? Let’s take a look and see how things change.
Solly Sullied Start
While some people are choosing to (incorrectly) label 1st round pick Solomon Thomas a bust, there is absolutely no reason to. Has his production been what you want to see? Not quite, not for that high of a draft pick. Has he flashed the talent worthy of said pick? Most definitely. Has he been consistent? Not even close. None of Thomas’ shortcomings thus far have warranted the criticisms.
Not enough can be said about how much the rule forbidding draftees to participate in OTA’s and minicamps until their school finals are done truly hurt the players progression and development. Thomas did as much as he could by himself, seeking out tutelage from Michael Bennett, Von Miller and Warren Sapp, but nothing can really take the place of a team environment and learning from the coaches who will be your mentors for the foreseeable future. DL DeForest Buckner had a similar road block in his rookie year, and while he didn’t pursue some of the avenues Thomas did, he has certainly shown what he’s made of.
New Scheme, Who Dis?
It’s impossible to talk about the trials Thomas has faced so far this season without talking about the entire defense as a whole. The transition to a 4-3 Under under DC Robert Saleh has not been an easy one. It inadvertently exposed LB NaVorro Bowman’s lack of mobility and inability to perform in coverage snaps. It’s also caused some mighty growing pains for the secondary, exposing them to numerous long plays.
Learning a new scheme is complicated enough, and while it’s simple as pie compared to the abominations that were the schemes former DCs Eric Mangini and Jim O’Neill utilized, it’s still drastically different enough to cause growing pains.
Those seem to be the main causes of frustration for the DL, and while theyre frustrating for fans who are antsy for wins during a hefty rebuild, they’re all very fixable. Thomas will become more familiar and conditioned to the speed of the NFL, much like Buckner did. He has arguably been improving at a rate faster than Buckner in his rookie season, and you get the sense that once some consistency is achieved, a breakout game won’t be far behind. On the same hand the defense and DL as a whole will become more acclimated with the scheme, and with that will become more instinctual, and thus faster, performance and play.
What do you think of the performance of the DL and what improvements do you think they can do? Let us know on twitter and stay tuned to 49ersHUB for more great content!