© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Four years and nine-plus months have passed since Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and their Oregon Ducks lost to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the CFP National Championship game.
Two days after that 42-20 loss, on January 14, 2015, Armstead declared for the NFL Draft. At one point indecisive about whether to pursue basketball or football, Armstead dropped basketball in the spring of his sophomore year and gave up his final year of college eligibility in pursuit of an NFL career. That career began in Santa Clara after the 49ers drafted Armstead with the 17th overall pick.
If Armstead had expected to achieve the same level of success with the 49ers as he had with Oregon, he’s certainly had to wait for it—and even at 7-0, there’s no guarantee the 49ers will reach those same heights. After seasons of sub-.500 records, Armstead will be one of the first to tell you he and the 49ers aren’t resting on their laurels.
Since the departure of Jim Harbaugh in 2014, the 49ers’ story has been one of questionable draft picks and injuries, often with the injuries creating the questions. Like Jimmie Ward, another Trent Baalke-era first round draftee the year prior, Armstead has shown glimpses of his talent in seasons past, but his inability to stay healthy put a cap on his potential.
His junior year of college was influenced by a left ankle injury that he played through, and while he played in all 16 games of his rookie year, mainly off the bench (one start), his second and third years in the NFL were cut short by injury. A torn left labrum ended his second season after eight games, and a fractured left hand in the following season had the same effect, this time in Week 6.
Armstead played 375 snaps his first year. He took fewer in each of the next two seasons before finally playing a full 16 games in 2018 despite a “cleanup” surgery on his foot and a hamstring strain in training camp. He finished with relatively meager career-highs of three sacks, 48 tackles, six for a loss, and 12 QB hits.
Not even halfway through this campaign, Armstead is well ahead of his career highs, or on pace to break them. He’s already crushed that sack total, with 5.5 sacks thus far, along with another career-high of seven tackles for a loss (26 tackles total).
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Baalke and then head coach Jim Tomsula called Armstead “a project” when they drafted him after that junior year (2.5 sacks, 46 tackles). He and Buckner were brought in as the defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme before the hire of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, along with head coach Kyle Shanahan in 2017, saw a transition to 4-3, where Buckner stayed inside, while Armstead was initially used as a LEO outside rusher.
After that finally-healthy, but underwhelming 2018 season, there was some doubt over whether the 49ers would retain Armstead at his $9 million fifth-year option, and when they did, there was the ensuing question of why. But internally, there was faith that he’d pay out on that retention bet, and finally reach the level of dynamism that his college tape indicated he could.
That 49ers are cashing in that bet right now.
Saleh said Tuesday that Armstead may have been too smart and operated in what he terms “grey area,” perhaps overthinking his role, which may have been a factor of his injuries and frequent positional shift. That grey area is Saleh’s catch-all term for a level of indecision that he’s sought to exterminate from his defense this season, and few members of his staff have been more effective at that than defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
“I think for Arik, he’s always had work ethic, he’s always had a tremendous mindset,” Saleh said. “Sometimes being the smartest D-Lineman in the room can backfire on you, especially if you have grey area in the way you’re seeing things.
“I think having coach Kocurek with him, who is completely black and white in how he coaches, and very detailed and very specific with how he wants them to take on blocking combinations and how they approach each play all the way across. Arik has completely bought into that and he has bought into a style that coach Kocurek and really everybody in this organization believes he can be and it’s showing up play-to-play.
“He’s playing exactly the way he’s being asked to play and he’s showing his dominance and I only think he’s going to get better.”
General manager John Lynch paid credit to Armstead’s offseason effort in combination with the tutelage of Kocurek on KNBR Tuesday.
“For Arik it probably took a little longer,” Lynch said. “I remember the first year we were playing him outside at LEO, he lost a bunch of weight, he was struggling with injuries and Arik’s success, you know, I’d say during last year we started seeing burst and little glimpses of it. This year, whatever reason, whatever took off, it took off.
“I think Kris Kocurek’s been a big part of it, teaching Arik how to maximize his ability and then you’ve got to credit Arik for the hard work.”
“Showing dominance,” as Saleh put it, is not something you would have heard as a descriptor for Armstead in past seasons. But aside from Nick Bosa, Armstead has arguably been the best defensive lineman on a team that might be the best in the NFL.
In Armstead’s mind, the difference is that he’s healthy, telling KNBR, “I always knew the player I was.”
“I’m on the field and I’m playing,” Armstead said. “You can’t be productive when you’re not on the field or when you’re hurt, so that’s a big part of it. You look at my stats over the years, I just wasn’t in the game because I was hurt, so I’m on the field I’m playing, I’m healthy. I’m focused, my mindset is right.”
While Armstead was praised by Saleh as always having a great mindset, Armstead appears to have been the clearest beneficiary of Kocurek’s coaching, both from a technical standpoint and confidence level.
For someone who has clearly had the talent to be the defensive menace he is now, Armstead, it seems, needed a coach who pushed him in the right way.
When some players are asked what coaches tell them to encourage them, the answer is often generalized, sort of a summation of what they’ve been told. Armstead’s response, when asked of Kocurek, and his coaches’ message, was more direct.
“‘I believe in you. I trust you. I care about you. I want you to be successful. Go out there and I know the player you are. You’re a great player so go out there and do what you’re capable of.’ That’s pretty much it,” Armstead said. “When you walk out on the field and people got your back and they believe in you and care about you, that puts your mind at ease and you’re able to do your job.”
Kocurek has provided technical details and critiques in implementing his wide-nine scheme as well as the more ethereal encouragement. When you watch the 49ers practice, he’s the one voice you’ll hear from the coaching staff on every single rep and snap. He is a loud man, but his bark is usually followed with a piece of advice to the player being barked at.
In the most basic sense, Kocurek has enabled Armstead, and the rest of the defensive line, to play worry-free football.
“Being able to be cut free and just play clear-minded has been helpful and just to be able to go out there and attack and play physical without worry of messing up or anything like that,” Armstead said. “My coaches having trust in me and my ability, has been great. When I walk on the field, you know there’s not too much to worry about.”
There may be some concerns this offseason, when Armstead hits free agency. The only alternative is if the 49ers use the pricey franchise tag on him, at either $17.1 million as a defensive end, or $15.2 million as a tackle; Armstead could be argued as a starter at either position. As Lynch said earlier this year, Armstead is due for a hefty payday in free agency, and with massive extensions likely coming for Buckner and George Kittle, along with a few other key free agents who will be due their own lesser, but not insignificant deals, Armstead could be on the outs.
Unless Jimmy Garoppolo’s deal is reworked (which isn’t out of the question), Armstead likely won’t be back. Even if Garoppolo’s deal is reworked, the money will be tight, and Lynch didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about the chances of retaining Armstead. For now, Armstead said he’s focused on a season in which the 49ers are 7-0 for the third time in franchise history, and not on his potential final season in Santa Clara.
“I really haven’t thought about it too much,” Armstead said. “It’s not really in my control and I don’t like to look too far ahead into things. I’m enjoying playing here, having a lot of fun, winning a lot of games and I’m gonna try to help this team the best way I can, by playing hard and trying to help us win games.”