Solomon Thomas hasn’t been heard from much lately.
On the football field, the 49ers’ third-overall draft pick in 2017 has been quiet. He’s looking for his first sack of his second NFL season while his lack of production has stood out. He was drafted to bolster the pass rush, but he’s done little to help the team in that facet.
San Francisco enters Sunday’s game against the undefeated Rams with 12 sacks, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL through six games.
Thomas’ presence has also been scant in the locker room, where he has rarely been during the lunch period in which reporters can chat with players during the week. He often spoke to writers and found himself in front of TV cameras as a highly-touted rookie last year.
But that hasn’t been the case in 2018 following his three-sack first season.
The last notable time Thomas was heard from in the public forum was when he penned an essay for ESPN titled, “My Sister was ‘the light of my life.’” It was his gut-wrenching account of dealing with the recent suicide of his little sister, Ella, who took her life last winter at the age of 24.
The devastating loss of his sister is still weighing on Thomas as he tries to continue pushing himself as a football player.
“That’s just an every-day struggle.” Thomas told The Bee. “For me and my family and just emotionally, physically, it takes a toll on you. That’s just some part of my life. Football is also another huge part of my life. It’s my job and it’s important and I need to go out there and I need to make plays. I need to play good for myself and my teammates, so that’s another part of my life that I need to excel at. Just getting there and just working hard each day to get better.”
Thomas’ story is a sobering reminder football players deal with real-life problems often overlooked by those who demand athletes perform no matter their circumstances. It’s perhaps the most fickle side of a bottom-line industry.
“He’s a very strong individual and definitely has a lot of will,” said fellow defensive lineman Sheldon Day.
Thomas’ football career has been disappointing relative to expectations surrounding him when he entered the league out of Stanford. He was expected to become a premier defensive player as a recent third-overall draft pick.
Defensive linemen drafted in the same range such as Khalil Mack (fifth overall, 2014), Von Miller (second overall, 2011) and Joey Bosa (third overall, 2016) have evolved into star players and franchise cornerstones.
It’s fair to wonder about Thomas’ confidence. Success breeds it, and Thomas’ success hasn’t been there while he’s been saddled with family tragedy. He’s played just 54 percent of defensive snaps this season (down from 71 percent as a rookie), which ranks fourth among the team’s defensive linemen. DeForest Buckner has played 81 percent, Arik Armstead 63 percent and Cassius Marsh 56 percent.
“Me and Solly have multiple conversations about he can do better and stuff like that,” Day said. “We’re always working on how to make his pass rush better so he is more efficient. Every day, he’s asking more questions trying to pick other people’s brains to see how he can improve his game. So I definitely feel like he’s growing from this experience for sure.”
Thomas played in a career-low 36 percent of plays during Monday night’s defeat to the Packers in which he was credited with his first tackle-for-loss of the season coming on a botched reverse. But coach Kyle Shanahan is confident Thomas will improve as the year progresses, starting with Sunday against the Rams when his role should expand.
“We haven’t gotten out to the start that any of us expected or wanted. But, I believe in Solly,” Shanahan said. “I know he can bring things to our defense and help us. I know him and us as a coaching staff are still trying to develop where he can affect the game the most. There are some different spots that he’s had to go through with that. But, as long as he stays healthy and can continue battling through this year at that stuff, I think we’ll have a very good feel for him at the end of this year. I expect him to continue to play at a high level.”
The lack of production could be correlated to a lack the lack of consistent playing time. The coaching staff is trying to balance getting Thomas the game time he needs to further his development, while also giving snaps to players that have produced. Day has been the team’s most consistent interior pass rusher behind Buckner.
“I’m a guy who likes to have reps to get better. Have reps to learn and learn from,” Thomas said.
Said Shanahan: “We’re trying to win games and we’re trying to adjust things and do whatever we can to have a good run defense and then at the same time to try to generate pass rush and you use personnel differently according to that.”
Shanahan said he views the defensive line like his receiving corps on offense. They have varying skill sets to deployed in different ways. So far, Thomas has been used as a defensive end in base packages where he’s excelled in running downs. But he’s behind Buckner, Day and Armstead on the pecking order of interior pass rushers.
“We’re working through that trying to figure out the best way to be effective,” Shanahan said. “We’ve had inconsistency through it all, but there has been some good things and I think we can capitalize on those and continue to get better. And I think Solly will.”