By Sam McPherson
Name: Solomon Thomas
Weight: 273 lbs.
Position: Defensive lineman
Draft Pick: 3rd overall in First Round
In two years at Stanford University, defensive lineman Solomon Thomas registered 12 quarterback sacks in 26 games with the Cardinal. Now as the top pick of the San Francisco 49ers in the 2017 NFL Draft, Thomas should help rejuvenate a defensive unit that slipped from a Top 5 group in 2011-2014 to the worst in the league last season as the team posted its ugliest record in club history.
Coming off last year’s 2-14 record and with a new head coach at the helm—former Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan—the 49ers have a lot of holes to fill on the roster, but Thomas’ presence on a rebuilt defense is one of the biggest remedies for what ailed San Francisco in 2016. And we’re not talking about Thomas’ 273 pounds of ferocity off the line, either.
The 49ers tallied only 33 sacks last season, just eight sacks better than the worst team in the league (Oakland) for the category. Thomas’ size and speed, and his ability to play end or tackle, will enable the S.F. defense to play more aggressively throughout the unit, and with the return of linebacker NaVorro Bowman from injury, it’s almost as if the 49ers are getting two elite players added to the lineup this fall.
This was the third straight draft in which the S.F. organization chose a defensive lineman, following the selections of Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner the prior two years. With the three talented youngsters on the line, each with the same ability to play inside or outside, the 49ers defense certainly will be better up front against both the run and the pass—easing the pressure on the secondary while the rejuvenated linebacking corps ably support the line.
Defensively, that’s what San Francisco had been lacking in the last few seasons with the deterioration of its once-mighty defensive line, thanks to injury, retirement and suspensions of dominant players from the 2011-2014 era. Now, with Thomas in the fold, the 49ers defense will look more familiar to long-time fans aching to see the return of an imposing unit on that side of the football.
The new S.F. defensive coordinator is Robert Saleh, a “rookie” himself in the role. However, he was the defensive quality control coach for the Seattle Seahawks from 2011-2013, so he knows a little something about making an elite defense work in the NFL. With a player like Thomas at his disposal, the 49ers are going to be a lot more dynamic on defense this season.
Thomas’ athleticism is off the charts, by the way, as he ran a 4.69 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine while also posting a 10-foot, six-inch broad jump and a 35-inch vertical leap. He’s big, explosive, fast and strong—all tools that will serve him well as he goes up against top NFL offensive linemen and running backs trying to stop his progress into the backfield.
He was a first-team Pac-12 pick last season as a junior at Stanford, and Thomas earned third-team All-American distinction as well. The Pac-12 Conference was loaded with offensively impressive teams, so the 49ers’ newest rookie star certainly went up against the best in 2016. Thomas’ best game last season, though, was actually against Notre Dame, when he had 12 total tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
On the biggest stage of the season, truly, and under Touchdown Jesus on the campus of the Fighting Irish, Thomas showed fans and scouts alike what he was capable of when under scrutiny, against the highest level of competition in the country. Even in the three Stanford losses last year, Thomas played well: Against Washington, Washington State and Colorado in conference play, he totaled 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
The 49ers would be thrilled with that kind of production from Thomas each week during the 2017 regular season (five tackles and a sack, on average). Officially, the NFL rookie sack record belongs to Jevon Kearse, set in 1999 with the Tennessee Titans. With 14.5 sacks that year, Kearse helped his team reach the Super Bowl.
That kind of impact from Thomas this year for San Francisco is possible as the 49ers look to return to NFL elite status after missing the playoffs now for three straight seasons while winning just 15 games combined from 2014-2016. With Bowman’s return and the additions of free-agent LB Malcolm Smith—the Super Bowl XLVIII MVP with Seattle—and rookie LB Reuben Foster from Alabama, the entire 49ers defense will be different from what everyone saw the last few years.
Up front, though, Thomas will be the man that makes it all go ’round for San Francisco, because that is what Top 3 picks in the NFL Draft are expected to do: step right in and make a big impact. The Stanford standout shouldn’t disappoint Bay Area football fans in 2017.