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In one offseason, the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers has transformed from a group rightfully criticized for underachieving, to the NFL’s gold standard. When that group is praised, it’s often with the declarative statement that it’s composed of five former first-round picks.

The outlier in that group is Solomon Thomas.

When Thomas was selected with the third overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, he was handed a full plate of immediate expectations in much the same way Nick Bosa has—though Bosa has met and maybe exceeded them. To this point, expectations and reality haven’t come close to connecting for Thomas, who understandably struggled last season following the death of his older sister, Ella Elizabeth Thomas.

Now, it’s no longer on his shoulders to carry this defensive front, a group which was eighth-worst in sacks last season, and is now ninth-best thus far—a stat which doesn’t do justice to the pressure being put on opposing quarterbacks and run games.

Thomas has been a clear seventh in the pecking order behind DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, Ronald Blair and D.J. Jones, who often pushes Armstead out to end as the starting nose tackle. Armstead slots inside when Ford, who has been on a snap count for much of the early going, comes in at end.

But on Sunday, when Jones picked up a hamstring strain and the 49ers were run ragged by the Rams on their opening possession, Thomas was provided with his opportunity to show how he’s revitalized his game. While he didn’t create the same down-in, down-out pressure that Nick Bosa or Dee Ford have been creating, that’s more a credit to their All-Pro quality as well as the openings that the interior defensive linemen have opened up for those edge rushers.

The ball wasn’t run at Thomas very often on Sunday, and when it was, like many times this season, it boded poorly for the offense. On the Rams’ first snap of their second drive, all three of Thomas, Buckner and Armstead pushed back against their blockers. After being double teamed, Thomas pushed his remaining man towards Rams running back Malcolm Brown. Buckner cleared his man, covering off a potential cutback inside and Armstead did the same as Thomas, leaving space for Kwon Alexander and Jaquiski Tartt to get free around the edge and tackle Brown, who had no space to escape.

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First snap of Rams’ second drive and Solomon Thomas’ first snap of the game. He gets off double team then pushes man towards Brown, Armstead does the same to his man, Buckner clears inside and Tartt and Alexander get free to make the tackle

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11:40 AM – Oct 17, 2019
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It was an immediate adjustment made by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who spent about five minutes to himself just studying film, before coming back to his team and taking measures to counter a seven-play, run-only opening touchdown drive from the Rams. Thomas was quick to credit not only Saleh, but the rest of the defensive coaches, including defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. The praise for Kocurek has been a common thread within the defensive line unit this season.

“He’s a really smart coach, really good at breaking down schemes and who we’re going against and breaking down each offensive linemen, the small stuff you normally wouldn’t hit on top,” Thomas said. “He’s good at opening your eyes to that and really ingraining in our brains and making sure we know it day-in and day-out.”

Thomas was given his second-most snaps of the season against the Rams, the 25 snaps matching the same 48 percent mark which he had in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals (33 snaps). Outside of those two games, Thomas had 12 snaps against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (17 percent) and 11 snaps against both the Pittsburgh Steelers (21 percent) and Cleveland Browns (24 percent).

One common thread is that when Thomas is given snaps, he tends to take advantage of them, especially in the run game, though the ball isn’t often run in his direction. He said Wednesday that while he can play on the edge, the interior is where he feels more comfortable: “I feel like I’m at the best place in my career right now.”

Against the Bengals, Thomas secured his first sack of the season, when he tackled a scrambling Andy Dalton just before the line of scrimmage, but also had a pair of other tackles, one on a run stopped at the line of scrimmage, and the other on a two-yard pass play. Against the Steelers, he had three tackles, one which brought down James Conner for a one-yard gain, and one on a pass play for a gain of three yards. His one tackle against the Browns brought down Nick Chubb for a one-yard gain. Against the Rams, he had one tackle for a loss in the run game and the other was a stop for two yards… along with his first “real sack,” as he termed it.

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Here’s Solomon Thomas’ first “real sack” of the season as he termed it today. He had one against the Bengals on a broken play where he got to a scrambling Andy Dalton in week two

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11:42 AM – Oct 17, 2019
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Thomas said having such talent rushers around him is “a blessing” and provides opportunities for himself and others to get a sack. At least publicly, he seems to be focused on his own improvement, rather than worrying about his draft position and paltry snap count numbers.

“Control what you can control,” Thomas said. “Don’t get lost in anything else, start overthinking or anything. Take advantage of my week in practice and preparation and when I get an opportunity, take advantage of it. That’s all I can do. I can’t worry about how much I’m going to play, how little I’m going to play, just got to go out there and execute when it’s time to execute, so that’s all I’m worried about. Whenever I get out there, I have to play as hard as I can, be the best Solomon Thomas I can be on the field.”

That’s a common theme in the 49ers locker room. When there was a clamoring for Antonio Brown to be traded for, there was zero movement from the 49ers. General manager John Lynch made it clear he wasn’t anywhere on the team’s radar, and it’s part of a concerted effort to bring in players of a certain makeup.

When you look around that locker room, there are no egomaniacs, no divas, guys who you worry about causing a scene. When trying to break down the final roster, defensive end Damontre Moore seemed like he’d earned a spot, and was at the very least on the bubble. But he was a player with a past of arrests, including multiple DWIs, and a scuffle within the locker room over a pair of headphones.

There’s no evidence that Moore’s past is the reason he didn’t make the roster, and he certainly seemed like he was searching for self-improvement after the birth of his first child, but he stood out as a player with a problematic past in a way that no one else on the team did, while someone like Thomas, a third overall pick just two years ago, has accepted a come-off-the-bench role, seemingly without complaint.

On Wednesday, Buckner praised Thomas’ work ethic and attitude this season.

“He doesn’t complain at all, you know, he’s just looking for ways to get better each and every day,” Buckner said. “He goes out there and practices his tail off. All the guys see the hard work that he puts in and when he gets that time to really show everybody what he can do on game day, he’s been doing it and he’s been fighting around… That’s the kind of player you want in a D-lineman.”

Again, it’s no coincidence that the 49ers have been able to get a top-three pick of two years ago to become a plug-and-play guy. It’s part of a culture that, three years into the Shanahan and Lynch administration (with some carryover from the Trent Balke era), is finally paying dividends.

Buckner said he’s noticed that utilitarian vibe in the locker room.

“Definitely. That’s one big thing that I have noticed is not a lot of ego in our team, you know, everybody wants to play,” Buckner said. “You know, everyone wants to do what they can do to help the team succeed. And that’s what you want to be a team. That’s what you want in teammates. Everybody understands their role and what they need to do to get better each and every day to to help this team succeed.”

Buckner was lined up next to Thomas on the field and wasn’t able to see the sideline reaction, but it was conveyed to him by Kocurek.

“Kocurek, we were in the meeting in the meeting room and he was just saying, ‘You should have seen the sideline, all your teammates, how happy they were for the sack.’ Obviously Solly’s had some ups and downs since he’s been here even on a personal level,” Buckner said. “To see the development in just the type of person that he is, it was just great to see when one of your brothers gets to make a big play, especially him. It’s even sweeter.”

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