It’s almost impossible not to like Solomon Thomas. He is an aggressive worker on the field and has a smile that would melt a glacier off the field. When he was picked in the first round of the draft in May, I was among the devotees of both the 49ers and Stanford football who rejoiced. Thomas was a defensive standout on The Farm, and upon his (late) arrival to Santa Clara, the preseason games indicated that he was going to live up to the hype that surrounded his selection.
So, a few weeks back, Scott asked me to bang out a review of Thomas’ performance up to that time, and I did so — actually, it was my first piece for NBN after coming over from 49ers Hive. I’m still here, so apparently someone likes what I’m doing, and I still like Thomas. Let’s revisit the man and see how he’s doing so far this season.
By The Numbers: Thomas hasn’t made any statistical impact yet. He’s played in 3 games, and has started in only one. He’s seen a high of 47 snaps (against the Seahawks) and a low of 36 snaps (last Thursday against the Rams); he’s been in on 59% of defensive plays altogether. He has gotten no solo tackles, no sacks, and 7 combined tackles. The Niners defense has pressured or hurried opposing quarterbacks 37 times since Week 1, and Thomas has been responsible for…just one of those.
To be fair to Thomas, he has had three tackles for loss so far, but as Chris Biderman of NinersWire reminded his readers this week, those came “when a handoff was fumbled, when he was was unblocked and allowed to run down a ball carrier and when blocked by Rams receiver Robert Woods (193 pounds), over whom Thomas (273 pounds) has an 80-pound advantage.”
So it’s probably not surprising — although it is disheartening to some, including this author — that Thomas has a PFF season grade of 47.7 so far, ranking 80th at his position (although only two other players from the NFC West have higher grades than he does).
Technique: This is somewhat harder to measure, because it calls for description rather than scientific precision. Still, as I did before, I’ll use a few of the NFL Draft profile remarks to gauge Thomas’ progress.
Lined up at multiple positions: Although Thomas has been used primarily in sub packages, he does have the speed and the size to be effective as an inside defender and at setting the edge, and maybe even as a pass rusher in a tight spot. Whether or not he wants to, Thomas has had to learn almost every defensive position this year, and while he hasn’t broken any records so far, he hasn’t been a disaster either.
Excellent against the run: I haven’t read a serious observer of the 49ers so far this year that doesn’t think the run defense is a massive improvement from a year ago, even in a three game window. Thomas is a major part of that, even if it’s not an achievement you can stick a number on. He was brought to Santa Clara to stop running backs, and he’s doing his job. A few times he’s made opposing tackles and tight ends look foolish trying to block him in the running game – whilst his worst rep came when he was kicked inside. The former is a big positive and bodes well for him presumably taking over from Tank Carradine at defensive end full time. The latter leads me onto my next point…
Needs to get bigger and stronger through his lower body: This is something Thomas needs to keep working on. I predicted that he would have trouble with linemen who were larger than him, and he has; hence, the zero sacks and his relative absence from the opposing backfield. If you’re going to be a success on the defensive line, at some point you can’t just rely on speed. Thomas has to hit the weight room religiously for the next few months. This is most pressing from a pass rushing perspective, where he has often been asked to kick inside and has been totally engulfed when doing so. Coincidentally…
Gets engulfed at times: Fairly clear that this has been true. Thomas often went up against Luke Joeckel in Seattle and wasn’t able to put a lot of pressure on Russell Wilson. This week he comes up against John Wetzel is a four year veteran who is both taller and heavier than Thomas, so Thomas better be prepared for the Cardinals offensive lineman to stand his ground pretty ferociously this Sunday.
Disclaimers: If this sounds like I’m making excuses for Thomas, eat a peach. This is the fact: he was legally unable to attend OTAs because the NFL doesn’t allow college athletes to practice with their professional teams until final exams are over. And when did you last hear of any athlete in any sport being considered a superstar after three games, matches, or events? Would Michael Jordan have been declared the greatest roundball player ever if he had to learn point guard, power forward and center at the same time? Get real.
Kyle Shanahan himself has said that Thomas is being asked to do an awful lot, and that to learn all those positions takes time and patience. Just like everything else with the 49ers this season.
Now, Thomas’ moment may have come. Tank Carradine got hurt this week and was stashed on injured reserve, and Thomas will succeed him as a starting defensive end. It’s a crappy way to become a starter, and I wish Carradine all the best, because I think he hasn’t shown us everything he can do. But it’s football — people get hurt. The game goes on.
Here’s the keys to the Maserati, Solomon. You’ve earned your driver’s license. Let’s see what you can do.
Photo Courtesy of D. Ross Cameron – AP