© Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
John Lynch’s and Kyle Shanahan’s first draft with the 49ers was followed with immediate results. Even with the much-maligned Solomon Thomas pick at No. 3 overall, several 49ers rookies blossomed in 2017, particularly on the defensive side. Their collective play spurred optimism for the current season.
So far, none of the defensive players have apparently progressed. All of have either plateaued or regressed.
Let’s break down how each of San Francisco’s four marquee second-year defensive players — Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, and Adrian Colbert— have performed through seven weeks.
Solomon Thomas — Round 1, No. 3 overall
Thomas has not come close to living up to his draft status. The Stanford product was regarded as one of the top pass-rushers in the 2017 draft after amassing 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles in his sophomore year, winning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award.
Through 21 career NFL games, Thomas has just three sacks and eight tackles for loss. He does not have a sack this season. What’s even stranger is that three 49ers defensive linemen — DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Cassius Marsh — have logged more snaps this season than Thomas, who has played just 55.7 percent of snaps. Last year, he played 61.9 percent.
According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas is the 21st-best run-stopper out of all defensive ends this season. But he’s been graded as an average pass-rusher, and his lack of numbers reflects that. Thomas is not a bad player, but he’s far from the dominating presence you’d expect out of a high draft pick.
Elite pass-rushers are typically identified out of college and drafted highly. Eight of the 10 current sack-leaders were drafted in the first round. The 2017 draft was particularly weak at the position, with exception to No. 1 overall selection Myles Garrett.
Maybe Thomas is stuck in the wrong scheme, a belief former 49ers safety Donte Whitner holds. It’s clear the 49ers are still trying to figure out how to best use Thomas, whether inside or outside and situationally.
With just 14 total sacks on the season, the 49ers’ lack of pass rush falls largely on Thomas.
Reuben Foster — Round 1, No. 31 overall
Foster was considered a steal at No. 31 overall. He lived up to his billing in an injury-plagued but productive rookie season. Foster was one of the top linebackers in the league last year. He compiled 59 solo tackles, seven for a loss, and five quarterback hits in 10 games. Had he sustained that production over a 16-game calendar, he would have likely been named a Pro Bowler.
If there was one promising youngster on this 49ers roster entering 2018, aside from Buckner, it was Foster. Back in May, general manager John Lynch told KNBR Foster is a “Hall-of-Fame talent.”
Yet Foster has been as disappointing as anyone in his second year. After missing the first two games due to suspension, he has consistently missed tackles (he missed six in his 2018 debut), overrun ball-carriers, and been beaten in coverage. He continues to suffer minor shoulder injuries because his all-out tackling style generally excludes caution.
Foster ranks as Pro Football Focus’ No. 77 linebacker, which would have been mistaken for a typo at the beginning of the year. He was expected to be the dominant, game-changing, middle-of-the-field force capable of elevating a young 49ers defense. He has not done so. His two-tackle, three-missed-tackle performance in Week 7 encapsulated his rough 2018.
One of the reasons the 49ers are 1-6 is due to their -15 turnover differential. They are giving the ball away far too much, but they aren’t forcing enough turnovers. And this has been Foster’s most glaring, and confounding, weakness dating back to college— he has never intercepted a pass, forced a fumble, or recovered a fumble either in college or the NFL.
Ahkello Witherspoon — Round 3, No. 66 overall
Witherspoon spent the offseason bulking up and attending Richard Sherman-organized cornerback summits with some of the best players in the league. The fact that he was invited attested to Witherspoon’s potential and Sherman’s belief in it.
But Witherspoon, too, has struggled immensely. His shortcomings have been more obvious than the above players, with opposing offenses periodically exposing his side of the field. The worst came in Week 2, as Witherspoon battled ankle injuries. The Detroit Lions scored 14 straight points in the fourth quarter largely because quarterback Matthew Stafford found success targeting Witherspoon’s side. Witherspoon was taken out for Jimmie Ward for a series.
Stafford’s passing chart showed his tendency to target Witherspoon’s side.
Witherspoon hasn’t been picked on as much in the following weeks, but he has not noticeably improved. He was demoted from starter to third-string in Week 6 at Green Bay. Then he regained his starting role one week later against the Los Angeles Rams, but he allowed a touchdown to Brandin Cooks. Witherspoon broke up a deep pass notching just his second pass breakup of the season. He has no interceptions this season.
Nearly every week, Witherspoon has allowed a big play, a result of either poor coverage or miscommunication with other secondary members. Shanahan has said he and the coaching staff are thinking of how to jumpstart Witherspoon’s season. He will have to improve if he hopes to retain his starting job long-term.
Adrian Colbert — Round 7, No. 229 overall
Pro Football Focus ranks Colbert as the worst starting safety in the league. His 31.7 rating is nearly 13 points fewer than any other starting safety.
Colbert assumed the starting free safety spot in Week 10 of last year and shined. He and Jaquiski Tartt, who has plateaued in his fourth NFL season, were expected to be San Francisco’s safety duo of the future. Colbert particularly has not resembled the rangy, instinctual, hard-hitting player we saw last year.
He was almost nonexistent in the opening three weeks. In Week 4, rookie D.J. Reed started in place of him. The following week, Shanahan spoke as if the starting competition was somewhat open, implying Colbert’s grasp on the job had loosened a bit. Then, in Week 5, he allowed a 75-yard touchdown on a terrible misread.
Colbert suffered an ankle sprain on a jump ball in Week 7, sidelining him for most of the second half. On Monday afternoon, Shanahan said the 49ers have placed Colbert on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain. It’s likely he will miss the entire season, paving a path for Reed to start and potentially keep that role, just as Colbert did as a rookie.