The excitement about the 49ers’ draft wasn’t shared by every member of the organization.
In fact, there were at least two exceptions: defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and wide receiver Dante Pettis.
The 49ers’ widely applauded first-round selections of defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk obviously spoke to how they thought about those players. But it also spoke to the likelihood that Thomas, the No. 3 pick in 2017, and Pettis, taken 44th overall in 2018, have moved to a different stage of their young careers.
Last year there was a belief that Thomas and Pettis, each now 24, could fulfill their draft-day promise and assume prominent roles. Now the reality is they are far more likely to serve as role players in 2020.
Put it this way: Their lack of progress last season is a big reason the 49ers felt compelled to draft a defensive lineman and wideout with top-25 picks last month.
On Monday, the deadline for NFL teams to pick up the fifth-year contract option for players selected in the first round in 2017, the 49ers officially declined to do so with Thomas.
The decision wasn’t a surprise. The 49ers, if they had picked up the option, would have been agreeing to pay Thomas $12.3 million in 2021, a salary not close to commensurate with his production in his first three seasons. Thomas had 21 tackles and two sacks last year and has 93 tackles and six sacks in 46 career games.
A year ago, Thomas was viewed similarly to defensive lineman Arik Armstead, a 2015 first-round pick who also had failed to realize his first-round potential. In 2018, Thomas played more snaps than Armstead (644 to 608) and neither provided much pop for the pass rush: Armstead had three sacks and 12 quarterback hits, and Thomas had one sack and six QB hits.
In 2019, however, Armstead finally produced with 10 sacks, one more than he had in his first four seasons combined. He signed a five-year, $85 million extension in March, shortly before the 49ers traded defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Colts.
Instead of tabbing Thomas to assume Buckner’s starting spot, they selected Kinlaw with the pick they received for trading Buckner. The plan for Thomas? General manager John Lynch has indicated he’ll remain in the rotation among their backups and possibly receive an uptick in playing time. Thomas played 41% of the snaps in 2019.
“Solomon Thomas is a guy that we felt played well last year in a role,” Lynch said. “We think that role will expand.”
Thomas has done nothing to shake the concerns before he was drafted that he was a so-called tweener, lacking the arm length to excel as an outside pass rusher and the size to dominate in the interior.
Lynch noted Thomas was probably miscast when he was being used outside early in his career. Last year, however, Thomas, listed at 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, played primarily inside and failed to take the next step. Lynch recently said Thomas, who weighed 273 pounds at the 2017 combine, needed to add weight this season.
“Last year he got really light, which helped in his quickness,” Lynch said last week on 95.7 The Game. “But I don’t know if he had enough substance in terms of weight. So he’s going to come back a little heavier.”
As far as Pettis, he needs to return hungrier.
This offseason, both Shanahan and Lynch publicly called out Pettis for not reporting in shape last year. There were questions before he was drafted about Pettis’ passion for the game, and they persist, given the way he approached the 2019 season, when he entered the offseason as the leading candidate to serve as the No. 1 wide receiver.
“I know a lot of people have soured on him, but we haven’t,” Lynch said on 95.7. “He didn’t come to camp ready to play last year physically. And we challenged him. That’s got to change. Because we believe, if he does, he’s a guy who can really excel in our offense.”
Head coach Kyle Shanahan soured on Pettis last year. Pettis’ 11-catch season ended with him playing nine snaps in the final 10 games, including the postseason. Pettis was inactive for Super Bowl LIV, despite not being injured.
He’s not guaranteed a roster spot. Aiyuk figures to join Deebo Samuel as a starter, and Pettis will fight for snaps among backups who include Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Hurd, Trent Taylor, Travis Benjamin and rookie Jauan Jennings, an intriguing seventh-round pick.
Last month, the day Aiyuk was drafted, Shanahan said the first-round pick had a skill set “similar to Dante’s” before adding that Aiyuk was committed to becoming as good “as God ever intended him to be.”
Lynch and Shanahan don’t view Pettis as having the same mind-set, but it’s possible Pettis’ lost 2019 season could serve as a wake-up call.
Meanwhile, Thomas’ desire hasn’t been an issue, but questions about his physical limitations persist.
Can Pettis and Thomas have a breakthrough in 2020?
The 49ers appear to have provided their answer in the first round of the draft.