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Ranking most important 49ers in 2018: No. 6 Arik Armstead


Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are six 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 is counting 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.

Let’s highlight defensive end Arik Armstead, our sixth-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Arik Armstead

If this were a countdown ranking the team’s best players, Armstead would not land as highly as No. 6. That’s not to discount his talent or potential, the word commonly attached to him since he was drafted in 2015, but the first-rounder simply has not stayed healthy enough to show what he can do over an extended period.

This is a countdown based on importance in 2018, and there is no de-emphasizing the need for an improved pass rush. Of course, that does not fall solely on Armstead, but considering his prominent role and coming off an offseason in which the 49ers picked up his fifth-year option that keeps him under contract through 2019, the 24-year-old enters a pivotal season.

So, what has gone wrong in Armstead’s young career? For one, injuries. He played a full 16-game slate as a rookie in 2015, but he missed the second half of the 2016 season with a torn labrum. In Week 6 of the 2017 season, he broke his hand and did not play the rest of the year.

Since the 49ers drafted Armstead with the 17th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, he has started just 11 career games. He has played 14 contests combined throughout the past two years. He has compiled six total sacks and 77 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

Another possible reason for the slow start to his career: constant turnover and a so-called identity crisis among the line. Armstead is the only defensive lineman left from the 2015 unit. The 49ers used three first-round draft picks in consecutive years to select Armstead (2015), DeForest Buckner (2016), and Solomon Thomas (2017). All three entered the NFL as so-called tweeners, capable of playing both inside and outside, leaving the 49ers staff with decisions on where and when to deploy them.

The plan entering 2018 appears to be set in stone. The 49ers will play Armstead at the ‘big end’ position on base downs, John Lynch said in April. Armstead primarily played the ‘LEO,’ or the weak-side edge rusher role, last year. Thomas will play the ‘LEO’ on base downs and move inside on passing downs. The line will be built around Buckner, one of the most promising defensive tackles in the NFL.

Lynch and Kyle Shanahan chose not to draft an edge rusher in April. Elvis Dumervil was the leading sacker from last year’s unit, which ranked 26th with 30 sacks, but was not re-signed this offseason. Instead, they picked up Armstead’s option, re-signed Cassius Marsh, and signed former Chargers defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu.

This defensive line is filled with journeymen and youngsters trying to make names for themselves. No current 49ers player has more than 10 career sacks.

The potential the 49ers see in the 6-foot-7, 292-pound Armstead, who has the necessary length, power, and speed to disrupt, has yet to be tapped. In late May, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Armstead has “still got tremendous upside, a ceiling that he hasn’t even touched yet.”

2018 is the time for Armstead to put it all together.

COACH SPOTLIGHT: Jeff Zgonina, defensive line

Before launching his coaching career, Zgonina was the ultimate journeyman. He bounced around eight teams throughout a 17-year career that ended when he was 39 years old. In his final season, he was the oldest non-kicker in the league. He was never paid more than the league minimum, according to Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden. The height of his playing career came as a starting defensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams when they won Super Bowl XXXIV. He retired in 2009.

Four years later, the Houston Texans hired Zgonina as an assistant defensive line coach. In the three years he coached there, the Texans’ pass rush steadily improved each year. They went from the No. 29-ranked pass rush, producing just 32 sacks, in 2015 to the No. 5-ranked pass rush in 2015, collecting 45 sacks. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus combined for 30 sacks in Zgonina’s final season with Houston.

In 2016, he was hired as the New York Giants’ assistant defensive line coach. The Giants allowed 17.6 points per game, the second-best mark in the league, and allowed 88.6 rush yards, which ranked third-best.

Shanahan hired Zgonina as the 49ers’ lead defensive line coach last offseason. They were one of the worst pass-rushing teams in his debut season.

Zgonina’s situation is similar to his Houston days. He inherited a young, largely unproven defensive line with seemingly enough young talent to build upon. And in a 2018 season filled with big expectations, the 49ers defensive line is arguably the most important position group on this roster.

The 49ers’ decision to not trade for or draft a blue-chip pass rusher ultimately reflects their confidence in Zgonina and the rest of coaching staff to maximize the current group.

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 rankings below.

No. 14: Kyle Juszczyk

No. 13: Solomon Thomas

No. 12: Adrian Colbert

No. 11: Pierre Garcon

No. 10: Weston Richburg

No. 9: Jerick McKinnon

No. 8: Mike McGlinchey

No. 7: Ahkello Witherspoon

 

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