Mitch Trubisky was the big story when the Sun Bowl began on Dec. 30. Solomon Thomas was the headliner when it ended.
There was Thomas, the Stanford defensive lineman, flushing Trubisky, the North Carolina quarterback, from the pocket. There he was crashing in from the edge to thwart inside runs. There he was spinning Trubisky to the ground on the Tar Heels’ final, decisive offensive snap.
When Thomas diagnosed a screen pass late in the fourth quarter, tackling the shiftiest player on the field that day, receiver Ryan Switzer, for no gain, the play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler asked, in mock boredom, “Guess who made the play?”
Replied analyst Gary Danielson: “I know who made the play.”
Never miss a local story.
The answer is the same when it comes to my Draft Crush this season.
Thomas is the epitome of what coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are seeking to do in Year 1 with the 49ers, which is to reset the culture on a team that won two games last season. Thomas is a tone-setter. Defensive linemen rarely lead their team in tackles. Thomas did so last season with 61 stops, 15 of which came behind the line of scrimmage. The scouting service Pro Football Focus rated him the nation’s best run stopper in 2016.
That skill isn’t as sexy as rushing the passer, but its importance can’t be overstated on a team that had the worst run defense in 71 seasons of 49ers football in 2016.
“Stopping the run is our No. 1 priority,” new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said early in his inaugural press conference this month. “The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players – we will stop the run on this defense.”
A locker room that just a short time ago had Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and Anquan Boldin also is in dire need of leaders and tough guys. Shanahan and Lynch began restocking the pond in the offseason with Pierre Garçon, Jeremy Zuttah and Kyle Juszczyk. They must continue to do so on defense via the draft.
Is Thomas tough? He never missed a game in two seasons and played through injuries. The recent bowl season was marked by prominent players – LSU running back Leonard Fournette and Thomas’ teammate, Christian McCaffrey – sitting out their team’s game. Thomas not only played in Stanford’s bowl game but had his most dominant outing of the season. That’s how you really improve your draft stock.
At the scouting combine two months later, he continued to impress by, among other things, running his 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds. That speed is a bit misleading. He never looked like a swift-footed, edge pass rusher who swooped in on quarterback in mere seconds. Most of his damage in the backfield came when he lined up inside as a defensive tackle.
Instead, his combine effort showed what kind of worker he is. Thomas, a redshirt sophomore, finished in the Top 5 among defensive linemen in five different categories, including the bench press. (Thirty repetitions of 225 pounds). The performance certainly underscored his athleticism, but more so how hard he trains.
That was a common denominator between the two best 49ers defensive linemen in recent memory, Smith and Bryant Young: They owned the team’s weight room and set the standard for their teammates.
Perhaps the biggest question mark with Thomas is how he’d fit on team that drafted two other defensive linemen, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, in the first round the last two years.
On passing downs, the answer’s easy: He and Buckner would line up as the defensive tackle while Armstead and, say, Aaron Lynch are the ends. The 49ers are also curious if Armstead can play the so-called “Leo” defensive end position on base downs. That would put Thomas at left, or strong-side, defensive end where he often lined up at Stanford and where his run-stopping ability would be best utilized.
The minority report on Thomas
▪ He wouldn’t fill a gaping hole for the 49ers. Both Buckner and Armstead can play left defensive end. So could Tank Carradine and Ronald Blair. The bigger need is finding an athletic “Leo” rusher who could register 12-15 sacks a season. Thomas does not seem suited for that role, meaning the 49ers would have to find their “Leo” on the current roster or later in this draft.
▪ Some draft observers envision Thomas as an Aaron Donald-type of inside rusher. But at 273 pounds, Thomas might struggle as an every-down interior lineman. Teams wonder how much more weight his frame can hold. He enters the NFL well prepared, but how much upside does he have?
▪ His best games – including vs. North Carolina – came against guards and centers who won’t be playing on the NFL level. When he had trouble at Stanford it was against the type of big, long-armed linemen who are far more common in the NFL.
Draft crush runners-up
1. Derek Barnett, defensive end, Tennessee: He’s savvy, strong, extremely productive and more athletic than he’s given credit for. This was a tough call, especially since Barnett would be an ideal “Leo” rusher. Thomas’ leadership – he was the heart and soul of Stanford’s defense – set him apart.
2. Malik Hooker, safety, Ohio State. If the 49ers defense is going to flourish, it needs a free safety who deters quarterbacks from throwing over the deep middle. Hooker has rare range in coverage and catches passes – seven interceptions – like a center fielder. But he’s only done it for one season and his tackling stinks. That makes him a risky pick when he’s the last line of defense.
3. Mike Williams, receiver, Clemson. Looking for tough guys? How about a receiver who broke his neck after crashing into a goalpost one season and who was even more aggressive the next? Williams is great at contested catches. But therein lies the rub – too many catches were contested. He couldn’t get enough separation.