Few college interior defensive linemen were as disruptive last season as Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, who had a team-high 62 tackles and eight sacks, then stamped an exclamation point onto those numbers by showing an impressive combination of power and quickness at the scouting combine.
The performance boosted Thomas’ profile to the point where several draft analysts — from ESPN’s Mel Kiper to the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah — have him being selected No. 2 overall to the 49ers in next month’s draft.
There’s just one hitch. San Francisco used its two most recent first-round picks on interior defensive linemen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. If the 49ers took Thomas, it might mean coaches either would have to put one of the players at a position at which he’s not ideally suited or keep one on the sideline when the game begins.
Thomas, running back Christian McCaffrey and their teammates will hold their pro-day workouts Thursday at Stanford, and representatives from nearly every team are expected to be on hand, including the 49ers.
Would Thomas be redundant in their defense? Or should a team take the best player available, regardless of position?
Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager who now runs the Senior Bowl, said teams typically try to spread their high draft choices over a number of positions. There are salary cap-related reasons for doing so — you want to avoid dedicating a big chunk of money to one position group — while team officials also want to give previous picks a chance to flourish.
“In a general sense, you would rarely see the same general manager make a redundant selection like that,” Savage said of Thomas. “Because you’re almost admitting that your previous picks have not been very good.”
The 49ers’ situation is a bit different, he said, because the man who chose Armstead and Buckner, former general manager Trent Baalke, was ousted in January and the team has an entirely new regime.
“It may not matter what’s taken place in the past,” Savage said. “If they think this guy’s the best player to them, (they’ll say), ‘We’re taking him.'”
Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ personnel director for three decades, said the Cowboys’ proven philosophy was that they never could have too many defensive linemen.
“We always had a pair and a spare,” said Brandt who noted that the Cowboys drafted Ed “Too Tall” Jones No. 1 overall in 1974 and then used the No. 2 overall pick the following year on Randy White. The two defensive linemen ended their careers with 12 Pro Bowl appearances between the two of them.
Thomas would be a worthwhile selection for the 49ers for that reason, Brandt said, and because he’s the type of leader the team badly needs after the recent exits of Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Frank Gore and others.
“He’s what I call a ‘Two,'” Brandt said. “A ‘Two’ means he’s not only a great football player, he’s a tremendous person off the field — a great character person. In this draft, if we had one person that some day may be a senator of the United States, it’ll be this guy.”
There are several examples of teams using multiple first-round draft picks on the same position group in recent years.
Former Lions general manager Matt Millen chose wide receivers — Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams — from 2003-05. Only one, Roy Williams, was productive and he only spent five seasons in Detroit. Millen was fired in 2008, although it should be noted that his first-round pick in 2007, receiver Calvin Johnson, was at one point considered the best player at his position.
In the last five years, the Bengals have brought in a bevy cornerbacks, the Jets have concentrated on defensive linemen and the Cowboys have used three picks on offensive linemen: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zach Martin. Of those examples, Dallas’ picks have yielded the best results, perhaps because an offensive line utilizes five players at once.
Earlier this month at the scouting combine, Thomas (6-3, 273) touted his versatility, vowing he’d be able to line up at various positions and in a number of schemes, depending on which team selects him.
His showing in Indianapolis supported the claim. Of the seven drills performed there, Thomas finished among the top five defensive linemen in five, including the bench press (30 repetitions of 225 pounds) and the vertical jump (35 inches).
“I can rush anywhere. I can play anywhere,” Thomas said. “I play every down. I’m great stopping the run, great rushing the quarterback. I’m very versatile. I have toughness. I try to get after every (offensive) lineman and put the fear of God in them and make a play. I’m just trying to get to the quarterback every play and be destructive and wreak havoc.”