Let’s start with the fact that nobody really and truly knows how Thursday night’s picks will pan out. Nobody. In the NFL draft, the sure things are never sure things. Some unsure things go on to win Super Bowls and marry supermodels.
That said, new 49ers general manager John Lynch reached a point in his pre-draft strategizing about the team’s No. 2 overall pick where clarity reigned.
Lynch realized that he needed to choose between taking a highly-touted quarterback such as Mitchell Trubisky of North Carolina or a top defensive lineman such as Solomon Thomas of Stanford. Lynch had graded Trubisky as the best quarterback in the draft but was leery of his resume. Trubisky had just one season of college experience–13 games–as a starter for the Tar Heels.
So while Lynch is a smart Stanford guy, he did not need his smart Stanford brain to make the decision about who to draft. He didn’t need a brain at all. Thomas was the easy call.
“He disrupts things,” Lynch said about Thomas with certainty–and this was all about certainty.
Now, give Lynch credit for keeping his intentions silent. This allowed him to successfully tempt the Chicago Bears into handing over a bundle of picks to move up one slot. Lynch didn’t know for sure they Bears would take Trubisky–but got a sense it would happen from his head coach, Kyle Shanahan.
“He’s pretty bright,” Lynch said of Shanahan and his assessment of the Bears’ trade offer. “Kyle said, ‘That’s not for a defensive lineman–that’s for a quarterback.”
And it was. Thus, with the 49ers’ weak-coffee roster in need of much more disruptive caffeine, Lynch went with Thomas, who spent the past two seasons at Stanford driving opposing linemen crazy while earning their major respect. How do we know this? Each year, the Pac-12 awards the Morris Trophy to the conference’s top defensive lineman, as voted on by the league’s offensive lineman. Thomas won the trophy last autumn.
Most impressively, as a conclusive flourish to his college career, Thomas had maybe his best game for Stanford in the Sun Bowl when the Cardinal defeated . . . wait for it . . . that’s right, North Carolina and Trubisky. In the 25-23 victory over the Tar Heels, Thomas had seven tackles (five solo, two for losses) and sacked Trubisky once. After the game, there’s a picture of Thomas shaking hands with Trubisky. Thomas swears he did not tell him: “See you at the draft.” But as a Stanford communications major, Thomas knew he had communicated the proper message to NFL scouts that day.
“It definitely helped me,” Thomas said Thursday of his bowl performance in El Paso. “It showed what I could do. I think that game helped me out a lot.”
Thomas went through the draft process but further cemented the 49ers’ opinion of him during a dinner with Shanahan and Lynch at the Sundance Steakhouse in Palo Alto. This led to Thursday night. After the Cleveland Browns used their overall No. 1 pick to call the name of Texas A&M defender Myles Garrett, there was a pause when the Bears finalized their trade with the 49ers for the No. 2 spot.
“I was kind of curious about what was going on,” Thomas admitted.
Smartness was going on. Why not make the deal with Chicago and let the Bears blunder into Trubisky? It’s well documented that quarterbacks taken with the No. 1 or No. 2 picks fail to become champions more often than not. Here are the quarterbacks taken with the second overall pick since 1967: Archie Manning, Bert Jones, Rick Mirer, Ryan Leaf, Donovan McNabb, Robert Griffin III, Marcus Mariota and Carson Wentz. And now Trubisky. There’s always a possibility that he could become the first Super Bowl winner on that list. But would you bet on it?
Later in the evening, the 49ers made a more risky gamble by making their own trade to grab Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster, who had misbehaved at the scouting combine and was sent home. But after a thorough vetting by 49ers staffers, Foster was deemed to be no troublemaker and worthy of selection. It surely helps that, as Lynch said, Foster “plays sideline to sideline and hits anything that moves.”
At defensive line, Thomas is more of a straight-ahead downhill tackler. Plus, his pedigree shows he has the potential to step in and be a difference-maker much faster than Trubisky ever could be. But a year ago at this time, the 49ers also used their first round pick on a Pac-12 defensive lineman, DeForest Buckner of Oregon. Buckner wound up with six sacks and 73 tackles as a rookie, not such a horrible debut for someone playing on a bad team.
Thomas is not as big a man as Buckner. But he is faster. He has an entertaining back story in that for six years as a grade schooler, he lived in Australia when his father worked there. This resulted in little Solomon acquiring an Aussie accent that required him to take special classes and lost the argot when the family moved back to the USA and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Then it was on to Stanford where, a few years ago, Thomas wound up in the classroom with Lynch, who was returning to the school as a student after his NFL career. After Thomas’ final season with the Cardinal, he sought advice from Lynch, who told him: “Don’t worry about the external stuff–the best ting you can do is go have the best bowl game possible and show them you’re unstoppable and unblockable.”
Thomas took good notes. He has a knack for performing well in spotlight games like the Sun Bowl. A year earlier, in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium, Thomas returned a fumble recovery for a 34-yard touchdown against USC.
In short, it’s hard to see Thomas being a bust. In the worst case scenario, he probably is a situational passing down rusher who can create at least mild havoc, even as a rookie. In the best case scenario, Buckner and Thomas could combine to create consistent mayhem against 49ers’ opponents. They might even get the chance to sack Trubisky in December when the 49ers play in Chicago against the Bears. If that happens, remember Thursday night.