To get more out of two former first-round picks this season, the 49ers essentially have asked them to swap positions.
Arik Armstead, the 17th overall pick in 2015, has been playing what the team refers to as the "big end" spot this spring while Solomon Thomas, last year's third overall pick, has lined up on the other side of the defensive line at the so-called "Leo" position. Each was in the opposite spot when the season began last year, although Thomas started playing more Leo by season's end.
The Leo position is the signature spot on the defensive line and it typically goes to the most athletic lineman – and the most ferocious pass rusher – on the team. That description doesn't exactly fit Thomas, who finished with three sacks as a rookie.
At around 275 pounds, he's most effective getting to the quarterback when he's rushing from the inside. He'll do that on obvious passing downs this year, at which point his Leo spot will be taken over by a more agile defensive end like Jeremiah Attaochu or Cassius Marsh.
The big end plays on the strong side of the offensive line, which is where the tight end lines up and presumably where the offense wants to run the ball. He must be stout enough to hold his ground in the run game and quick enough to get to the quarterback. The Seahawks' Michael Bennett plays all over the defensive line, but his primary position is big end, which shows that it can be a marquee spot if the right player is there.
When he played Leo last year, Armstead dropped weight and was about 275 pounds when training camp began. This year he's up to 290 – closer to his weight coming out of college – as he learns a new spot.
“You have to play kind of some different kind of blocks, some double teams and play inside a little more,” Armstead said of playing big end. “So you definitely need to be a little stronger. I feel like I’m stronger. I want to be stronger and a little bigger to play that position because they’re a little different.”
Armstead's 2016 season was cut short by a shoulder injury and he missed 10 games last year with a broken hand. All of which has meant that he has yet to meet the expectations that come with being a first-round pick.
The 49ers, however, like his potential and earlier this year picked up the option year in his rookie contract, which is worth a hefty $9 million in 2019.
The Sacramento native says he knows he has a lot of critics but tries to "brush off" any negative comments he sees on social media.
“Being hurt two years in a row – that brings a lot of (critics saying), ‘What are you going to do?’ ” he said. “So (I) definitely have a lot to prove and (I'm) looking forward to having a healthy season. I know what I’m capable of if I’m on the field.”