SANTA CLARA — This is how you start, how the 49ers start, by choosing, talented, intelligent players, by selecting men you’ve judged to be one of the best — and your opinion is shared by others, even the television analysts who could find fault with Miss Universe.
Hey, she’s slow getting off the line.
But Solomon Thomas of Stanford, the Niners first pick, the third overall choice in the opening round of the NFL draft Thursday, is quick. And strong. And agile. He was a dancer and a swimmer when he lived in Australia from age two to seven. Now at 6-foot-3, 256 pounds, he dances around would-be blockers. Or between them.
Yes, another defensive lineman for the Niners, the third-straight year they’ve taken one in the first round, Eric Armstead in 2015, DeForest Buckner in 2016. Not sexy glamorous picks, but necessary picks.
Then, shrugging off his altercation with a hospital attendant during the NFL combine, the Niners swapped the 34th overall pick to Seattle for No. 31 and took Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster. Before the confrontation, Foster was judged a Top 10 pick.
You win on defense. Look at the Denver Broncos two seasons back. Look at the New England Patriots last season when they overcame the Falcons in the Super Bowl. Then look at the San Francisco 49ers, the worst defensive team in ther NFL last season.
Maybe they need a quarterback, and yes instead of swapping the No. 2 pick to the Chicago Bears for the No. 3 and some other lesser picks, San Francisco could have taken Mitch Trubisky — as did the Bears — or DeShaun Watson. But quarterbacks are risky. And no matter how many yards you gain, the issue is how many yards the opponent doesn’t gain.
With the addition of Thomas and Foster, the Niners hope to move up, returning to the place in the standings and history they held both in the 1980s and not so very long ago. Hard to imagine they went to the Super Bowl during the 2012 season, when their defense, with linebacker NaVorro Bowman as the main man, was excellent. But, since then, the Niners defense has been defenseless.
Thomas is the first first-round pick by Niners general manager John Lynch, who not only played for the Cardinal, as Thomas, but a couple of years ago, returning to Stanford to complete requirements for his degree, had a class with Thomas.
“I remember I was star struck the first day of class,” said Thomas. “What, John Lynch is in our class? So I tried to cling to him and learn from him. Very mature man.”
Now in effect, Lynch and Shanahan, hired together in February, will cling to Thomas, along with Buckner and Armstead.
Stanford head coach David Shaw, working with the NFL Network on the draft, was ecstatic when Thomas was picked after Miles Garrett, by Cleveland, and Trubisky.
“He’s just an extraordinary young man and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do at the next level,” Shaw said. “This is a leader. He’s exciting. He’s fun to be around. But make no mistake, he’s a competitor.”
He registered 101 tackles in three seasons for Stanford. He can play inside or outside. In the Sun Bowl he faced Trubisky. In the Niners’ 2017 NFL opener he’ll face his former Stanford teammate Christian McCaffrey, taken No. 8 overall by the Carolina Panthers.
The mock drafts had Thomas among the top three, and through social media, he was very aware. “I saw myself going to the 49ers,” he said of a prediction that was accurate. “I thought, ‘I love that.’”
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.