In New Orleans, the Saints think cornerback Marshon Lattimore should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year. In Jacksonville, workhorse runner Leonard Fournette ranks seventh in the NFL in rushing.
Pass rusher Derek Barnett is tied for Eagles’ lead in sacks while Jets safety Jamal Adams – two sacks and two fumble recoveries – already has risen as a leader of that team’s defense.
The common denominator: All were taken in the first round after the 49ers selected Solomon Thomas with the third pick overall.
Thomas, who is expected to return soon from a two-game absence this week, hasn’t been as flashy as some of his classmates. He has two sacks and his 26 tackles rank 10th on the 49ers.
Still, he received a robust defense this week from the man who selected him, general manager John Lynch.
“I think some people are saying, ‘The No. 3 pick, maybe perhaps should be a little more dynamic.’ But his play has been solid,” Lynch said during a 40-minute session with reporters. “And we knew it would be a process. I mean, he’s a young kid that I think, physically, he’s going to grow in stature.”
Lynch noted that despite missing the last two and a half games with an MCL sprain, Thomas has logged a lot of minutes during his rookie year. In his last two full games, for example, he was on the field longer than iron man DeForest Buckner. Thomas’ 423 defensive snaps this year lead all rookie defensive linemen and are far more than Philadelphia’s Barnett – 293 – has played even though Barnett has appeared in all 10 games.
“You never want to see anyone get hurt,” Lynch said. “But it almost came at a good time because I felt like we could see him just getting tired. So we’ve got to get him back and healthy.”
Thomas agreed. He said his time on the sideline gave him a chance for some self evaluation.
“I overthink sometimes,” he said. “Just trying to adjust to this scheme. You know, I haven’t really played on the edge much my whole career. So adjusting to that and to moving inside during games. I’m adjusting to it all. It’s taken me longer than I expected, but I’m working hard to make sure I fix some things and become the best player I can be out there.”
Lynch said the 49ers think Thomas’ most visible role will be as a nickel pass rusher when he is lined up inside against guards. That’s where he did his most damage when he played at Stanford.
The problem this year has been that the 49ers rarely have put opponents in third-and-long situations where they can utilize their best pass-rush group. Thomas began the season playing left defensive end on base downs in place of injured Tank Carradine. Before his knee injury, Thomas had switched to the other side, “Leo” defensive end.
It’s not known where he will be when he and Carradine, who is expected to be activated from injured reserve soon, are fully healthy. Thomas wore a brace on his left knee Wednesday and was limited in practice.
“I feel like these last six games are going to be really good for him,” Lynch said of his top pick. “He’s a worker. I challenge anyone to say he hasn’t played extremely well. I think he’s been a very solid player. I only think it will get better.”