In today’s NFL there has been notable emphasis placed on putting players in a position to win specific match-ups, on a play by play and week by week basis. This can be taking advantage of a team’s weaknesses, or attempting to nullify a particular strength of the opposition, and the introduction of such a kink into a team’s strategy can be the difference between a win and a loss.
The 49ers’ division rivals, the Arizona Cardinals, have been trail blazers in this movement, utilising the multi-faceted talents of players such as Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon, Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson in a number of different positions and situations to regularly win match-ups. The 49ers also have players who can offer such versatility but unlike their rivals, the 49ers’ most versatile players are largely stacked along the defensive line.
This is not surprising, given the focus on fortifying the position over the last three drafts. Most significantly, the latest draftee, Solomon Thomas, offers more versatility than either of his predecessors, Arik Armstead or DeForest Buckner. He has the ability to line up across the defensive line, though does look better as a rusher from the 3-tech spot (or even 1-tech) whilst being incredibly adept against the run at either 3-tech or 5-tech.
He does struggle to bend the edge but with his disruptive tendencies and explosive first step, it would not surprise me to see him lined up as the weak side defensive end as well. Certainly so far, the 49ers have shown few qualms about breaking the traditional mould for this position in this scheme, preferring a bigger body in base packages, rather than the über athletic LEOs used by Seattle and Jacksonville. Instead Thomas is physically more similar to Adrian Clayborn from the Falcons though he is considerably more talented. Playing as the weak side end in base packages as well as in some nickel fronts could favour Thomas well, as he looks incredibly effective lining up at this spot and attacking though the B gap, utilising his lower centre of gravity and explosiveness to blow up the back-side of running plays and massively reducing the room to manoeuvre for even the most mobile of running backs. Whilst he may not align at the traditional 9-tech spot, lining up at 6 or even 5-tech would suit Thomas here. Similarly, he could line up as the strong side end and use the same traits that would make him a success on the other side to allow him to blow through the C-gap and get into the backfield.
On later downs, he can be expected to kick inside and rush from the interior, sometimes even lining up shaded over the centre, but similarly he can be utilised outside. Though not much of an edge bender, Thomas can still be expected to better a significant number of NFL offensive tackles.
With Thomas, Buckner and Armstead the 49ers arguably have one of the most versatile defensive fronts in the NFL, allowing for a vast variety of packages that can take advantage of their versatile disruptive abilities.
Ron Blair is another incredibly versatile player, who I believe would immediately replace one of Thomas, Buckner or Armstead if one of them got injured as well as rotating in to keep them fresh. Blair is probably the most versatile lineman after Thomas. This core rotation would then be supplemented in specific situations with Earl Mitchell, Tank Carradine, Aaron Lynch or Pita Taumoepenu who have more limited skill sets but nonetheless useful abilities that can be utilised in specific situations. The 49ers could also look to use Ahmad Brooks or Eli Harold on the defensive line in certain packages.
Though initially underwhelmed by the Thomas pick, I have increasingly come round to realising the significant benefits that his versatility offers the 49ers. He gives them a match-up weapon, capable of being moved around the defensive line to cause disruption in both the running and passing games. Combined with the versatility (particularly with their pass-rushing alignments) of Buckner and Armstead, as well as the more specific abilities of the other defensive lineman, the 49ers could create one of the best defensive line rotations in the NFL, one that revolves around Thomas in particular.