By: C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The San Francisco 49ers are exploring an option that could vastly enhance their pass rush from last season.
Former first-round picks DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas have flipped their roles on the defensive line. The change of assignments has already paid dividends in practice, and the 49ers hope it could help raise the production of a defensive line that had room for improvement in 2017.
The move is simple: Put Buckner — who lined up at defensive tackle for most of last season — on the edge at defensive end, while sliding Thomas — who played end in 2017 — inside to tackle.
“I went into meetings one day and they told me ‘Hey Buck, you’re gonna be at the end position in this package,” Buckner said after practice on Monday. “It’s a confidence booster that they’re able to see that I can rush off of the edge.”
In 2017, the 49ers were ranked 26th among all NFL defenses with only 30 sacks on the year. Of those 30, only three came from Buckner. The problem that Buckner faced was the fact that he was being boxed in and crowded on the interior of the defensive line. Often shaded to the inside of offensive guards, Buckner drew multiple blockers like a magnet, which mitigated his effectiveness as a pass rusher.
By moving him to the edge of the defense, however, the 49ers believe that Buckner should be able to return to the terrorizing force that got him 10.5 sacks won a Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Award as a weakside defensive end at Oregon in 2015.
“The challenge for us is how to get Buck one-on-ones as many times as possible,” said 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. “Testing him out there at that end spot to see what he looks like, I mean, he’s unbelievable. He is a special talent. It’s on us to make sure that we put him in position, however we need to.”
One player who got a first-hand look at Buckner’s ability in one-on-one matchups Monday was starting left tackle Joe Staley. During position drills, Bucker blew past Staley twice, showing just how tough of a block he can be without help.
With Buckner trying out the edge at defensive end, the second step to this position swap consists of bumping Thomas inside to defensive tackle.
During his rookie season in 2017, Thomas saw the majority of his snaps come at defensive end. While his run-stop game was solid at that position, his pass rush wasn’t nearly as effective.
Similar to Buckner, Thomas only registered three sacks last year and was, at times, invisible when it came to getting into the opponent’s backfield.
With Thomas now at tackle — specifically the three-technique in front of the offensive guard — he, too, should be able to get back to what got him drafted No. 3 overall in 2016.
“Solly’s getting better,” said Saleh. “He’s inside in pass downs. So, what you see when he is three-technique, it might be second-and-15 and we feel like we need to get after the quarterback a little bit you might see a smaller group out there to get faster.
What Saleh is referring to is the fact that Thomas is only 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds. By matching up with a guard or a center on the inside instead of a larger offensive tackle on the outside, Thomas has a better matchup to get past the line of scrimmage.
Thomas put this on display against 49ers guard Erik Magnuson when he completely eluded the offensive lineman’s block, leaving Magnuson on the ground, shaking his head in confusion.
How the swap will play out long term remains to be seen. As is expected, it may take some time for Buckner and Thomas to adjust. The good news, however, is that the pair are willing to give it a shot and are excited to see what the future holds for their roles.
“I think it’s pretty cool how the coaches are experimenting,” said Buckner. “It changes the game up a little bit. Hopefully we can do it throughout the year.”
– Magnuson and Mike Person rotated today at right guard. Starting center Weston Richburg was given the day off for rest so Person saw reps at center as well. The right side of the offensive line continues to be a problem, though, as Magnuson and right tackle Mike McGlinchey were simply ineffective in the both the passing and run game. Magnuson had problems against Thomas in team drills while McGlinchey was embarrassed by Cassius Marsh. Overall another bad day for the right side of this offensive line.
– Practice ended with a bang on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to Marquise Goodwin. The good news: Garoppolo’s deep ball is looking more and more accurate by the day. The bad news: the play came at the expense of Ahkello Witherspoon, who was in perfect position to intercept the ball but let the ball slip through his hands. Surely that will be a teaching moment for the second year corner.
– 49ers running backs Jerick McKinnon and Joe Williams each had a fumble on Monday. McKinnon’s came at the end of a run during a move-the-ball period in the middle of practice while William’s came from a dropped pitch from C.J. Beathard. Both fumbles were recovered by the offense but it was still a bad look for that group.
– D.J. Reed saw snaps at nickel corner with the first-team defense on Monday. After the K’Waun Williams went down with a sprained ankle Sunday, the rookie defensive back assumed the role and played well. Reed is expected to stay at that spot until the 49ers can get their DBs healthy. Along with Williams, Richard Sherman is out with a hamstring injury, which, in turn, has shortened the depth chart at corner. Jimmie Ward came back to practice today after missing all last week with a hamstring, so he should give the 49ers more bodies to throw out at corner as well.