Solomon Thomas vs. Reuben Foster – Who Will Have More of an Impact this Season?

It’s very understandable as to why San Francisco 49ers fans are anxious to get the 2017 NFL season underway in order to help erase painful memories from a dismal 2016. With last season’s 2-14 record being the icing on the cake for a franchise going through a turbulent tailspin, 49ers owner Jed York had to act fast in order to start getting this team headed in the right direction.

But to change the culture within the 49ers locker room, York had to make drastic changes during the offseason by replacing former general manager Trent Baalke with NFL Hall-of-Famer John Lynch and then firing Chip Kelly who would eventually be unseated by Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as the team’s new head coach.

In light of the fact that Lynch has no previous experience working in any front office capacity, the former FOX NFL analyst knew he had a lot of work to do in order to build this 49ers team from the ground up and start a new foundation. One of Lynch’s first tasks at hand as general manager was to help retool a 49ers defense that set franchise lows in the areas of points, rushing yards and total yards allowed.

But never one to show fear just as he did during his playing days, Lynch addressed the defense first and came out swinging during the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft by selecting both Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas (third overall pick) and Alabama inside linebacker Reuben Foster (31st overall).

Both Thomas and Foster left their respective programs and entered the NFL with the potential of becoming impact players immediately. Thomas possesses the versatility of playing either on the outside or inside within the defensive line, while Foster is a ferocious hitter who is willing to take his shots whether downhill or inside the gaps. And while both Thomas and Foster have the ability to contribute right off the bat, it will be interesting to see which of the two will have more of an impact with the 49ers defense.

Despite coming off a campaign which included the honor of being named the 2016 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in his final year playing for the Cardinal, Thomas will have to get up to speed developing chemistry with his new defensive teammates as Stanford’s semester did not end until mid-June which prevented him from participating in offseason team activities (except rookie minicamp) due to the NFL’s policy for rookies coming into the NFL. But Thomas would find other ways to stay ahead of the game during the offseason by working out with both Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp and future Hall-of-Famer DeMarcus Ware on separate occasions. And the fact that Thomas learned from Sapp and Ware, who have a combined 235 career sacks and 16 Pro Bowl berths between the two, can only help benefit Thomas in the long run.

One benefit that Thomas will have is playing alongside the 49ers previous two first round picks in defensive ends Arik Armstead (2015) and DeForest Buckner (2016), who both each have at least one year of NFL experience under their belts and will be key components in rebuilding this 49ers defense. While being able to win with either power or quickness, the fact that Thomas is so versatile can be an instant upgrade to a defensive unit that was not capable of stopping the run last season.

Thomas can show great pursuit with speed and range as a playmaker, which an help make the rest of the offensive line even better.

The road to being drafted by the 49ers had a couple of interesting storylines for Foster. The former Crimson Tide’s draft stock took a hit with concerns not only pertaining to medical stinger issues that Foster has deal with throughout his career, but also the incident at the past NFL Scouting Combine where he was sent home after a dispute with one of the medical staff on hand.

This may have scared a lot of other NFL teams from drafting Foster right away but Lynch was the one general manager who believed in him the most, even to the point where the former Alabama standout could have been drafted by the 49ers at the number three overall spot had Thomas been taken off the board prior to the 49ers selection.

One of Foster’s many strengths is that he shows excellent coverage ability while possessing great speed and athleticism. But despite beng able to bring his swagger to any linebacker corp and backing his play up at the same time, Foster will need to work on being more instinctive and disciplined in order to get a better feel for game-time situations while on the field. If Foster can improve in both these areas and combine those with his speed and athleticism, there’s no doubt that someday he could become one of the top linebackers in the NFL.

There’s really no way to gauge how much of an impact Thomas and Foster can make during their rookie seasons, but both players offer an instant upgrade to areas where the 49ers defense were desperately lacking in 2016. Foster might have a slight edge over Thomas in making a bigger impact due to the more instability at the inside linebacker position, which even may include the heart and soul of the 49ers defense in inside linebacker Navorro Bowman, who is not only coming off an ACL injury that he suffered Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys last season, but is also not guaranteed a starting position despite his past credentials on the field.

So with the uncertainty of depth within the 49ers inside linebacker corps, Foster is in a perfect situation where he can assert himself and become a key contributor on defense right away.

Look for Thomas to still be an important part to the 49ers defensive line as he will play alongside with Buckner, Armstead and free agent defensive tackle Earl Mitchell. If players such as Buckner (who is predicting 10 sacks this season) can help improve on winning battles inside the trenches, it will help make the 49ers defense as a whole much better including both Thomas and Buckner.

So long as both rookies can stay healthy this season, expect both Thomas and Foster to be major impact players to help improve a 49ers defense that had so many glaring holes to fill last season.

Photo Credit: Niners Live

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