Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Fans have high demands of the 53 men on a professional football roster. I’m sure the clamor was the same a generation ago, but today’s wrath is amplified, founded more in social media grandstanding rather than justifiable fact.
Though, like Mike Singletary, we want winners; seasons of consistent disappointment or poor play make it difficult to enjoy a Sunday afternoon.
There’s plenty of blame to pass around for the San Francisco 49ers’ last two seasons. We’ve all ranted and pointed the finger at one particular player, coach, or executive for the struggle.
In fact, feel free to burn that red letter upon my chest as punishment for my grievous sin.
Maybe you’re reading this and believe 49ers’ third-year defensive lineman Solomon Thomas is a significant factor for ten wins in two years. And perhaps you’re thinking Thomas is a draft bust.
Just for fun, I looked up Thomas’ draft profile from NFL.com. Scouts listed a handful of weaknesses, the chief being that Thomas was a “tweener.” His weight was too low to play an interior position, and his length was “below average as a five-technique.”
Further, the scouts noted that he played too tall and got “washed out of plays by strong down blocks.”
I won’t disagree with those assessments. I’ve noted Thomas getting overwhelmed by bigger offensive linemen, and an inability to shed blocks when needed at any position.
Thomas was playing a 3-technique over the right guard on the play. Seattle center Justin Britt blocked down on Thomas, removing him from the play entirely. With the right ears, one could hear the NFL scouts say, “We told you he gets washed out of plays by strong down blocks.”
Unfortunately, many experts and hack writers (that’s me) have begged for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to play him on the inside. But if Thomas can’t improve on shedding the down block, he won’t make much of an impact as an interior defender.
Not every draft pick adjusts to the speed, complexity, and ferociousness of the NFL after two games, two months or two seasons. Some players take longer to succeed or thrive under different conditions.
If you need an example, please refer to former 49er quarterback Alex Smith’s first few NFL seasons. Immediately after Smith beat the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 NFL Divisional game, 49er fans conveniently tossed their dislike and frustration with Smith down the memory hole.
“I’ve always been an Alex Smith fan” was a common thread on KNBR’s post-game show that evening.
In his first two years with the team, Thomas totaled 57 tackles, 4 sacks, 39 hurries and 41 tackles for a loss. He also has missed 15 tackles.
In 2017, Thomas’ rookie year, he played 693 defensive snaps and played 652 of those at the REO, RE, LEO or LE, and had 3 sacks, 9 hits, 18 hurries 31 tackles and 25 run stops. Thomas had more quarterback pressures playing inside - one pressure per 4.3 rushes - than when he lined up on the edge - one pressure per 14.5 rushes.
Last season, Saleh had Thomas playing an edge position 497 snaps out of 643 defensive snaps. He had 1 sack, 6 hits, 21 hurries, and 16 run stops.
Pro Football Focus graded Calais Campbell as the NFL’s best edge defender, and he finished 2018 with 11 sacks, 11 hits, 31 hurries, 50 tackles, and 56 run stops.
I get it - we all want those numbers from Thomas. And as a top three draft pick, we should have had a game or two where Thomas absolutely dominated his opponent.
Thomas has been the victim of poor roster building from 49er leadership. He’s not the best edge defender - whether from the strong or weak side. But because general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan tried to skate by with below average edge defenders, they’ve been forced to fit Thomas to a position, rather than fit a position or scheme to Thomas.
There was one part of Thomas’ scouting report that stood out to me.
“Strengths: Stays hungry and wants to feast.”
Indeed, that trait can describe nearly anyone in the NFL. These men have dedicated themselves to a specific craft and want to be carved into a granite monument as a true football legend.
But describing that characteristic isn’t the same as living it. You’ll hear hundreds of second, third, and bubble players claim to be hungry but show no signs of making any real improvement year after year.
Thomas is the opposite. He’s admitted his on-the-field struggles, and I’m sure he’s heard the cries of the fans for production.
NBC Sports Bay Area Matt Maiocco had Thomas on his podcast on May 28, and Thomas noted his he hasn't played well.
“I’m not making an excuse for how I played at all. That’s on me. I didn’t play anything close to how I am or show any kind of spark of who I am on the field. Every day I’ll own up to that.”
There’s no science, no film, no diagram that can predict what happens to Thomas in Week 6 or 7 this season. Anyone who claims he or she knows how many sacks he’ll get or tackles he’ll miss is wasting oxygen and your time.
Thomas is not a draft bust. He’s struggled to play at a professional level, but he’s not a bust.
I want Thomas to succeed this season, just like I’d like to see Jimmie Ward bounce back from his injury and play to his ability. That same hope applies to most of the 3,000 men who find themselves lucky enough to be on an NFL roster today.
My confidence in Thomas improving isn’t based in fact or film; instead, it’s based on my hope in humans. I believe in what he can do and his resilience, rather than what he hasn’t done.
And maybe that’s enough for Thomas to take the right steps forward in his football career.
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