A lot is expected of pass rushers taken at the top of the NFL draft. That was the burden Solomon Thomas entered the league with last season after he was tapped with the third-overall selection.
Players like Von Miller (No. 2, 2011), Khalil Mack (No. 5, 2014) and Joey Bosa (No. 3, 2016) are all considered some of the best sack artists in the NFL and entered 2018 atop the list of favorites to win Defensive Player of the Year. The 49ers would love to see Thomas insert himself into that tier, eventually.
But it appears the Stanford alum is further away than the club would like.
Thomas in Week 1 played just 35 snaps (49 percent), the fourth fewest on the defensive line behind Arik Armstead (59 snaps), DeForest Buckner (54) and Cassius Marsh (39). That was by design, coordinator Robert Saleh said, because individual game plans vary on a weekly basis.
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“When you’ve got two 6-foot-7 trees in the middle pushing the pocket and playing with that mindset,” Saleh said, referencing Armstead and Buckner, “it is very hard for a quarterback to be able to see down the middle of a field.”
Buckner, the team’s best defensive player, had 2.5 sacks against the Vikings, a half-sack less than his 2017 total. Armstead was credited with five tackles, including one for loss and a quarterback hit. For now, they are top-two choices to rush opposing quarterbacks from the interior, leaving Thomas to work outside primarily during running downs in base packages.
“I’m trying to make sure that those guys are fresh, not only for the fourth quarter in pass-rush mode, but as the season wears on,” Saleh said. “It’s the same plan for Solly. He’ll still play base downs outside. (We’re) trying to find opportunities for him to rush inside on obvious passing situations. He’ll get some action hopefully this week against Detroit.”
Armstead’s ascension was credited to a renewed mindset, Saleh said, starting when Armstead returned from a hamstring strain in the third preseason game against the Colts.
“I think my mentality’s always been the same. I just haven’t been healthy,” said Armstead, who missed 18 games the past two years due to shoulder and hand injuries. “When I’m healthy, that’s my mentality, to dominate people. I think I can do that.”
The Lions are coming to Levi’s Stadium for the 49ers’ home opener on Sunday after not allowing any sacks in their 48-17 defeat to the New York Jets. Matthew Stafford tossed four interceptions, though Kyle Shanahan said it was important for his team to ignore the final score to avoid complacency entering Sunday’s game.
“When a team loses like that, and the score’s that bad, everyone’s going to completely overreact,” Shanahan said. “What made it very easy for me this week is our guys watched the film. I know what the score was, but you can watch the film and it wasn’t as embarrassing as people think it was.”
Goodwin out — Receiver Marquise Goodwin was officially ruled out Friday after missing the week of practice with a deep bruise in his right thigh. He suffered the injury in the first half against Minnesota and tried to return, but was sidelined again after he couldn’t get back to full speed.
That means the 49ers will start rookie Dante Pettis, Shanahan said, following his two-catch, 61-yard performance in his pro debut. His role expanded significantly once Goodwin was forced out of the game, which should help leading into first career start against Detroit.
“I think it gives him more confidence going into this game knowing he managed and got his way through that,” said Shanahan. “Now, no matter what you tell him, now he knows what can happen and I think he’ll be more prepared because of it.”
Missing Goodwin also means the 49ers will activate rookie seventh-round pick Richie James, who led the team in receiving during the preseason and showed promise as an option in the slot. James is the primary backup to Trent Taylor, though he’ll also be responsible for playing outside if anything were to happen to Pierre Garçon, Pettis or Kendrick Bourne.
Starters questionable — Three possible starters on Friday were listed as questionable, all with varying hamstring injuries: safety Adrian Colbert, linebacker Malcolm Smith and offensive lineman Erik Magnuson. Colbert and Smith were limited participants in practice after missing Wednesday and Thursday. Magnuson returned to individual drills this week after suffering the injury in the preseason.
Jimmie Ward would likely start in place of Colbert, who played all 71 snaps against the Vikings. Elijah Lee would go if Smith can’t.