San Francisco 49ers

49ers make decision on Arik Armstead for 2019; Jimmy Garoppolo ‘ahead of schedule’

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan: ‘Armstead has done a good job inside and outside’

Arik Armstead, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2015 first-round pick, has slimmed down in an effort to become a quicker edge pass rusher.
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Arik Armstead, the San Francisco 49ers’ 2015 first-round pick, has slimmed down in an effort to become a quicker edge pass rusher.

What to do with Arik Armstead?

That was one of the biggest questions facing the San Francisco 49ers. The 2015 first-round pick would be due more than $9 million guaranteed — and San Francisco could have cut the talented defensive lineman to clear salary-cap space, perhaps creating room for a more reliable player while giving 2017 first-round pick Solomon Thomas a larger role.

But the 49ers decided to keep Armstead, Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday from the NFL Scouting Combine. The team will pick up his fifth-year option.

“In the bay for another year hopefully many more if I’m welcomed #GodsPlan,” Armstead tweeted.

The decision was easy, Shanahan said, despite Armstead logging just nine sacks in four seasons and missing 18 games combined in 2016 and 2017.

“We’re not into losing good players,” Shanahan said. “He has played very well for us. I think he can take it to whole other level. I hope to see him do that this year. If he does that, that’s going to be very good for the Niners and very good for him, because he’s got the ability to do it.”

San Francisco is expected to have about $65 million in cap space, making Armstead’s cap figure palatable. And he played all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season, manning the “big end” position in base downs while playing all over the formation in throwing downs.

Additionally, Shanahan said he expects more out of Armstead because the team is going to change up its style when it comes to rushing the passer under new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and pass rush specialist coach Chris Kiffin.

“Just a little more wider-9s, things like that,” Shanahan said, indicating defensive ends in obvious passing scenarios will line up wider of offensive tackles. “We wanted to bring in something else in terms of pass rush and coming off the ball. That’s what Chris has excelled in, and I think it’ll match up good with the rest of our (front) seven.”

Leaning more on “wide-9” techniques could lead to San Francisco making drastic changes at defensive end, which is widely expected in the NFL Draft, perhaps with a speed rusher with the No. 2 overall pick. Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Kentucky’s Josh Allen are considered fits there. And at least one of those prospects will be on the board when the 49ers choose.

Armstead and Thomas, meanwhile, are still expected to be pass rushers from the inside while playing on the edges in running downs, Shanahan said.

Garoppolo ‘ahead of schedule’

Shanahan isn’t permitted to talk football with his players before the start of the offseason, according to the collective bargaining agreement. But that hasn’t prevented him from observing Jimmy Garoppolo’s rehab from his knee injury.

“We don’t talk about football. But I see him out my (office) window every day. He does drops every day,” Shanahan said. “... He’s been doing a good job, but everyone says they’re ahead of schedule. He is. I mean, he’s been healing great and he hasn’t had knee trouble before.”

However, Shanahan didn’t say Garoppolo is expected to be cleared for football activities any earlier than previously stated. Garoppolo is still on track to participate in OTAs in June, when he would only play in seven-on-seven drills.

“(We will) probably make a smart decision to go seven-on-seven so we wouldn’t have to worry about it. I don’t have an exact time line, but that’s how I feel,” Shanahan said.

Garoppolo likely won’t take part in 11-on-11 action until training camp.

Time for Garnett to step up

The 49ers might have to find a new starter at right guard; Mike Person is a pending free agent.

Shanahan invoked Joshua Garnett’s name first when asked about Person’s status heading into the new league year.

“I would love for Garnett to step it up,” Shanahan said. “He showed us some good things this year, but he just has not been able to stay healthy long enough to become consistent enough player as his ability. And that’s what I’m hoping for. It’s nothing against him because when he was healthy for us, he really worked. He never took a day off. The problem is he couldn’t string enough days together to where he could really have consistent improvement.”

Garnett, a 2016 first-round draft pick, missed the 2017 season after having knee surgery. He was a backup to Person to begin 2018 and dealt with a toe injury in the season opener at Minnesota.

He sustained a thumb injury during practice later in the year that required surgery. Garnett healed and played a season-high 30 snaps in the season finale against the Rams and appeared in seven games.

Still, Shanahan hasn’t ruled out Person’s return, who presumably would rejoin the team on a minimal contract.

“We’d love to have him back, but we got a lot of directions to go,” Shanahan said

— Shanahan said the team is waiting to make a decision on the future of linebacker Malcolm Smith. The team has moved on from veterans Earl Mitchell and Pierre Garçon, and it appears Smith, who turns 30 in July, would fall into the same group as a salary-cap casualty while the team gets younger.

“He’s still not fully healthy, so we’re waiting to figure that out,” Shanahan said.

Smith is still dealing with an Achilles’ injury that bothered him throughout 2018. He appeared in 12 games, making five starts, after missing all of 2017 with a torn pectoral.

— Shanahan endorsed the possible return of defensive back Jimmie Ward, who’s a pending free agent after ending his season with a fractured forearm for the second year in a row.

“I love Jimmie Ward,” Shanahan said. “I really hope to have him back. We all know he struggled a little bit to stay healthy. But he’s a guy, as a person, that I’ll go to war with any day, I really trust, I really believe in.”

Ward played cornerback and free safety since Shanahan was hired. But the 49ers seem poised to make an addition at safety and give corners Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore a chance at increased reps. Additionally, second-year pro D.J. Reed could also see his role expand, making it difficult to envision a role for Ward should he return.

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