© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time in four NFL seasons, Arik Armstead played well and appeared in all 16 games in 2018. The 49ers are betting he does it again.
On Wednesday afternoon, at the 2019 NFL Combine, Kyle Shanahan told reporters that the team will pick up Armstead’s fifth-year option in 2019. Armstead, who was drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft, would have entered free agency on March 13, the start of the new league year, had the 49ers not exercised his option. Armstead will make about $9 million in base salary, the second-highest on the team behind Jimmy Garoppolo, in 2019. After potential bonuses, Armstead will be the team’s fourth-highest paid player, behind Garoppolo, Joe Staley, and Richard Sherman.
By the numbers, Armstead did not have a fantastic individual season in 2018, but he was a major reason why the 49ers defense ranked seventh in yards per carry and allowed one opposing player to rush for more than 104 yards in a game. Pro Football Focus ranked Armstead as the No. 15 edge defender in run defense. He compiled 37 pressures, three sacks, and a career-best 48 tackles.
Armstead’s biggest breakthrough was improved health. 2018 was the first time since his rookie season that he played in all 16 games. After starting 11 career contests in his first three NFL seasons, Armstead started all 16 last year.
For these reasons, Shanahan said the decision to pick up Armstead’s fifth-year option was an easy one.
“I don’t think it was difficult at all,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “We are not into losing good players. He has played very well for us. I think he can take it to a whole other level, and I hope to see him do that this year. If he does, that’s going to be very good for the Niners, and very good for him. He has the ability to do it. He has already done some very good things for us these two years. Hopefully he can stay healthier. Hopefully the addition of changing our style up a little bit on the d-line can help him. I expect him to get better.”
Earlier this month, the 49ers fired defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina and replaced him with Kris Kocurek. Shanahan said the 49ers will deploy “wider nines,” essentially stretching the defensive line to create more pass-rush opportunities, which should benefit Armstead. San Francisco’s 37 sacks tied for 22nd in the NFL last year.
“Hopefully, this year (Armstead) can stay healthier,” Shanahan said. “Hopefully, the addition of changing our style a little on the D-line will help him. And I expect him to get better.”
“We wanted to bring in something else in terms of pass rush, coming off the ball, and that’s kind of what Kris has excelled in. I think it will match up good with the rest of our seven.”
While it’s early, and things may change, Shanahan foresees Armstead lining up as an outside rusher on run downs and inside on pass downs. The same goes for Solomon Thomas, another first-round pick who is somewhat of an inside-outside tweener.
Armstead’s return will likely limit playing time for Jullian Taylor and Kentavius Street, two second-year players competing with each other. Taylor, a preseason darling, logged just 101 snaps in 2018. Street tore his ACL one month before last April’s draft, deeming his rookie season as a redshirt.
Shanahan seems pleased with Street’s progress.
“He got so swole up, in a good way,” Shanahan said Wednesday. “He works his tail off, but I am glad we went there last year. It’s hard to take a guy you couldn’t use for a year, but I am glad we have him.”
In December, Shanahan said retaining Armstead isn’t so simple because it impacts how the front office allocates the rest of its money. In recent weeks, that vision has cleared up a bit. The team waived Earl Mitchell, Garry Gilliam, and Pierre Garcon, saving more than $9 million. Earlier this week, the 49ers placed their franchise tag on kicker Robbie Gould, who will earn more than $5 million in 2019.
The bottomline, Shanahan said, is that he didn’t want to lose a good, every-down player in Armstead. That was the consensus among the 49ers coaching staff.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise that Arik Armstead’s probably having his best year,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said in December. “It just takes time. Love the direction he’s going.”