There’s a certain mystique about first-round draft picks. They appear on television, hold up the hats and jerseys for their new teams, hug their mothers. And then we hear the astonishment (or lack thereof) from the NFL Network talking heads, and the declarations by general managers that this player is the key to their success, their team would become force to be reckoned with in our division, see you in training camp, yadda yadda yadda. Put bluntly, the expectations for that player are run up a very high flagpole.
Enter Solomon Thomas, a 6’3”, 273lb defensive standout from Stanford, who was the star of the 2016 Sun Bowl and the reason his team defeated UNC in that game, with a sack of Mitch Trubisky on the Tar Heels’ final drive. San Francisco chose him in the first round of the 2017 draft, in case you missed it. As usual, the hype was there, and the question echoed all through the halls of Santa Clara this summer: can the guy hack it in the NFL?
Let’s let Pro Football Focus speak for itself. Witness their rating of Thomas from Friday’s 49ers-Chiefs game:
Solomon Thomas, 88.2 overall grade
The rookie third overall pick started his NFL career with a bang as he recorded a hit and two hurries on 20 pass-rush snaps while also showing his stout run stopping ability notching two run stops on just seven run snaps. Thomas was able to consistently push the pocket whether rushing from the edge (9 snaps), over the tackle (8 snaps), or the interior (3 snaps).
Maybe the best way to gauge Thomas’ performance, aside from the excellent grade he got from PFF, is to look at some of the comments made in his NFL draft profile, and see how he fulfilled or addressed them.
“Lined up at multiple positions [at Stanford]” – Well, that’s an easy one. He lined up in at least three different positions along the line and did well in each of them. At least one writer described Thomas’ presence as “all over the field.”
“Has ravenous approach to the game” – Check. Thomas said he was “antsy” and “anxious” to get into the game on Friday, and afterward he said he still “needed to get better” at some aspects of his play. The man is starving to learn, to improve, and to succeed. We also saw his motor on display, when he made a tackle close to the sideline after chasing a ball carrier down.
“Excellent against the run” – Well, he only made two tackles on running plays, but don’t forget, the 49ers defense ranked last in the NFL against the run last season. They can only head upward, and Thomas showed he’s willing and capable of being part of that improvement. He made one notable run stop, as well as on one play shedding a blocker easily only to see the runner run by him. The latter play will be a learning play but demonstrated his physical prowess.
“Gets out of the blocks quickly” – Thomas was moving amazingly fast on every play, and made quite a few of the aspiring Chiefs’ offensive linemen (notably Laurent Duvernay-Tardif) look like they belong in another line of work. I honestly didn’t see a play where he was on the field that the opposing quarterback wasn’t under pressure.
“Can crank up a bull rush” – Damn straight. On his first snap, Thomas pressured Chiefs quarterback Tyler Bray into throwing a pass Rashard Robinson intercepted. Not long after, he didn’t have to spin much to get through right guard Bryan Witzmann; Thomas just threw Witzmann off balance and forced Bray to hurry a throw that Aaron Lynch nearly intercepted (and which might not have been caught by a KC receiver anyway).
“Needs to get bigger and stronger through his lower body” – Thomas didn’t quite get the sack that both he and Kyle Shanahan were looking for, not did he force a fumble. He will need to prepare for the biggest men he’s ever played against, men that by his own admission aren’t that big in the college game. Think Trent Brown, the 6’8”, 350-pound (just looking at those numbers makes my 6’2”, 210 lb body shrink) offensive lineman that Thomas was matched against in training camp. Or guys who are even bigger than Brown. Gulp.
“Gets engulfed at times” – Hesitation is death for a defensive lineman, because it usually signals confusion or fear — or having to think too much about an opponent’s formation. To be fair, Thomas didn’t look scared to me, and he certainly knows his position so far. But his coaches did remark that at times early on, Thomas hesitated a little bit on plays where he could have done even more to stop an opposing ballcarrier.
Thomas also missed some time at OTAs because of the much-maligned NFL rule that doesn’t allow college athletes to practice with their professional teams until final exams are over (gee, thanks, Stanford). Had he been able to attend, he might have been confident enough to have largely removed hesitation from his play and been even better against Kansas City.
But by and large, it’s hard for me to see where Thomas could have been more impressive in his NFL debut. No serious football writer has ever doubted that he would make the 53-man roster; it is now a case of how soon he will be a starter. He showed a consistent motor as well as being dominant against the (admittedly lower level players) that he faced.
Tank Carradine, it was fun, but the day of Solomon Thomas has dawned, and it’s going to be a very, very bright one.