Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are 13 days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Without further ado, let’s highlight defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, our 13th-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Solomon Thomas
In a transitional 2017 season that saw several 49ers rookies step in and contribute, Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft, blended in rather than stand out. Reuben Foster was the first-round pick who resembled a future perennial Pro Bowler. Top-five picks are held to a standard that expects instant production. Thomas’ rookie season did not live up to those expectations, some of which can be attributed to transitioning to a new position.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas played 71.1 percent of his rookie snaps on the edge last season. He played just 10 percent of his snaps on the edge at Stanford, instead asserting himself as arguably the top interior defensive lineman in the country. In his final college season, he racked up 47 total pressures (sixth-best in the nation) and a country-leading 46 defensive stops.
Thomas’ three sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss both finished second on the 49ers in 2017. He added a fumble recovery.
Thomas is somewhat of a tweener. The 49ers will deploy him in multiple spots, similar to their approach with Arik Armstead, as they try to find a consistent pass rush that wasn’t there last year. San Francisco’s 30 sacks was the 26th-fewest total in the league. Leading sacker Elvis Dumervil, who had 6.5 on the year, was not re-signed this offseason. No 49ers player has more than 10 career sacks entering 2018.
Instead of finding solutions in the draft, the 49ers signed former Charger Jeremiah Attaochu, re-signed Cassius Marsh, and picked up Armstead’s fifth-year option this offseason. They essentially doubled down, trusting another year in Robert Saleh’s 4-3 system would bring greater success among their young and inexperienced pass rush.
Thomas is expected to make that leap.
“I think this year is going to be a great year for (Thomas) to have a breakout season,” DeForest Buckner said during mini-camp. “Even in the meeting room, he is a lot more vocal and everything. He interacts with everybody a lot more. Last year he was kind of shy and reserved, and you can see how he’s getting a lot more comfortable around us.”
He is only 22 years old, after all. Last year, Saleh said Thomas thought too much instead of relying on instincts. The 49ers selected the Stanford product knowing it may take a year or two before he realizes his potential. They stayed patient with him last year throughout an up-and-down campaign, at times resembling a forceful, imposing presence, and during others, going quiet for long stretches.
He was on the field for nearly 62 percent of plays last season, the fourth-most for all 49ers defensive players. That figures to increase in his second year. Thomas is expected to line up at LEO on base downs and move to the inside on passing downs in 2018. He has bulked up this offseason, ballooning to 280 pounds.
The 49ers believe they can build a solid defensive line around Buckner, the soon-to-be third-year star who led all interior defensive linemen with 19 quarterback hurries last year. The attention he demands should allow one-on-one matchups for Thomas and the slew of rotational edge guys.
The presence of a game-changing edge rusher can not be prioritized enough, and with Thomas’ growing role, he assumes much of the responsibility to up last year’s sack total.
“He’s really starting to understand the pass rush part of it, in terms of attacking half a man and taking away space with his get-off,” Saleh said last month. “Hopefully with Solomon, people are going to look at production, but I think he’s going to be a lot better, production or not. He’s going to be a much better football player this year.”
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Chris Kiffin, pass rush specialist
The 49ers did not make any splash acquisitions this offseason to solve their pass-rushing woes. Instead, Kyle Shanahan addressed the issue from the top when he hired Chris Kiffin— whose roots are planted in NFL circles — in February.
Kiffin is the son of Monte, known as the pioneer of the 4-3 Under defense that 49ers employ a similar version of under Saleh. Pete Carroll first learned the defense under Kiffin as a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas in 1977. Since Carroll was named the Seattle Seahawks head coach in 2010, he has employed that scheme that has permeated the league, forming several of its top defenses in recent years.
Kiffin is now following his father’s footsteps, while coaching within his patented defense in his first big-time NFL position. Prior to the upcoming season, Kiffin, 36, had only worked in the NFL as an intern for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007 when Monte was the defensive coordinator.
Throughout the past decade, Kiffin has made the college rounds, coaching at Nebraska, USC, Arkansas State, Ole Miss, and Florida Atlantic. He served as Ole Miss’ defensive line coach from 2012 to 2016, where he developed a reputation as one of the top young defensive minds in college football. In Kiffin’s first year there, the Rebels posted 7.9 tackles for loss (fourth in the country) and 2.9 sacks per game (11th in the country). He was hugely responsible for attracting Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall player in the 2013 class who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals, to Ole Miss.
Kiffin left Ole Miss to become Florida Atlantic’s defensive coordinator prior to the 2017 season, joining his brother, Lane, the current FAU head coach and former Raiders head coach. Under Kiffin, the FAU defense morphed from the No. 121-stingiest unit to No. 42 in one season.
Shanahan interviewed seven candidates for the pass rush specialist position this offseason.
“(Chris) was the most impressive, just from a teaching standpoint, the places he’s been, the people he’s worked with, the different types of schemes he’s done, and he was very good on the board,” Shanahan said in May. “He’s been very good here with the players so far.”
Kiffin’s job is singularly focused: improve the pass rush. It’s a big job. He has a simple plan for how to do that.
“We have a guy inside in Buckner that’s, in my opinion, going to be elite,” Kiffin said in early June. “Any time you have an elite player, you can build around that. That’s the first thing you have to do.”
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the current rankings below.