Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The league is set up in a complex formula where the hard salary cap and the dependence on the draft for roster construction. Because of this, developing young players is a crucial element of any front office and coaching staff. The administrations that have failed and are ultimately fired are the ones who cannot properly develop younger players. We saw that in the previous two seasons prior to the hiring of John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan. Beyond the 7-25 record and the failure to add talent there was also the failure to develop whatever talent they did have. There is a legitimate reason as to why there are only select few that remain from the 2016 roster. Lynch and Shanahan had to remake almost 80% of the roster in a short period of time and that is because players were not being properly developed and could not operate in the schemes that they would be running. Now they have done an admirable job in just their 20 months on the job and there is still a lot of work to be done but we are beginning to see some concerning signs in terms of how they are developing younger players and how uneven that process is right now.
Even though the 49ers offense has had to endure the brunt of the injury wave this season there is plenty of optimism surrounding the unit and most of that is due to the performances of the youngsters. The offense is scattered with players with two years or less experience. Outside of the offensive line there isn’t a player that was drafted higher than the 2nd round (Dante Pettis). Its a group comprised of mid-to-late round picks and former undrafted free agents, and yet they are still 16th in points, 12th in total yards and 3rd in rushing yards per game. They have been willing to let young players work their way through the growing pains that come with being young in the NFL. Maybe its due to Kyle Shanahan’s belief in himself and his ability to get the most of out of them but there seemingly has not been any fear of playing rookies. It falls in line with the career that Shanahan has had; never afraid of a challenge, never afraid of depending on a young offensive player.
The 49ers defense is a much maligned unit that has gotten a lot of press over the first six weeks of the season. Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh has come under a ton of scrutiny for the job he has done. While most have criticized him for issues with the scheme people have seemingly failed to see what the issue truly is, development. Better yet how to develop the younger players under his supervision. Now, to play devil’s advocate, there are players that have logged consistent snaps through the season (Fred Warner and Reuben Foster since his return from suspension) but there are other players that have not received the same type of freedom.
If Saleh is the most scrutinized individual on defense, Solomon Thomas and Ahkello Witherspoon are not far behind. These two players are as decisive as any two in recent history. I can gather that most are ready to move on, and have considered them “bust” and that squarely falls on the shoulders of Saleh and his staff. Now execution and performance always falls on the player but its on the coaches to set up the player for success and a part of that success to be willing to endure failure.
Against Green Bay, Witherspoon did not even log a defensive snap even though he was healthy (he did endure a concussion but that was on the last snap of the game). Since week two against the Lions, Witherspoon has been in and out of the lineup, some of it due to injury but for the most part its due to the team’s decision to platoon at the spot opposite Richard Sherman. To be honest that has been unfair to Ahkello and has probably set back his development. They’ll argue that its for his own good and that they are trying to challenge him but in reality they did the worst thing you could do for a young player: They didn’t let him work through his issues and they haven’t allowed him to regain his confidence. When scouting a CB most look to physical traits and hip flexibility but not enough is made of the confidence level of the prospect. Its obvious that Ahkello has all the physical traits needed to be a high quality CB in the league, but his confidence right now given the circumstances has to be at all time low. The only way he is going to get that back is on the field uninterrupted. Now I know that seems a little counterintuitive but it’s necessary for the longterm of this defense. They just spent a 3rd round pick on him and are depending on him for this defense to grow into the unit they hope that they can be.
By now fans have already written Solomon Thomas off as a bust. Fans have already started speculating who he could be traded for and have tied the failure of the EDGE pass rush to him. Hell most fans couldn’t make an argument for what he should be classified as, an EDGE or a Defensive Tackle. No one could really blame them though, because the coaching staff has not settled into an actual plan for him and stuck by it. In the summer they talked about a plan for him and it was a sound plan, on base downs he would line up in what is commonly referred to as the LEO in order to take advantage of his strengths as a run defender. On nickel or obvious pass rushing situations he would move inside and rush from the interior. The role is very similar to the one Michael Bennett had when he was with the Seahawks, but yet as the season has gone on they have deviated from that plan and Thomas is no longer being used as an interior defender. The past two weeks, Thomas has not logged one snap inside. When pressed about it Shanahan pointed to the play of Sheldon Day and the fact that much like Witherspoon, they are challenging Thomas. That does Thomas no good. Everyone knows how he should be used. Even those in the organization have stated as much and yet they are not allowing him to play to his strengths and not allowing him to build up the necessary callouses needed to survive inside.
This team is 1-5, and more than likely will be 1-6 after tomorrow’s game against the Rams. While no one is thinking about tanking, they need to be realistic and understand the position they are in and how that position can benefit them longterm. We have already seen how the team can benefit offensively from playing young players. They have to be willing to do the same defensively. Whats the worst that could happen? The defense isn’t going to get any worse.
Or at least, it won't seem like it.
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