San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead was retained through 2019 via the fifth-year option, but were the Niners right to pay the hefty $9.046 million price?
Pro: San Francisco’s pass rush needs all the help it can get
Going into this season, Pro Football Focus ranked San Francisco’s pass rush as the 19th-best in the league, and the Niners produced only 30 sacks a season ago (26th in the NFL).
While that’s certainly not the bottom of the barrel, it’s fair to expect quite a bit more from a defensive line that boasts three former first-round draft picks (Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas). And though he hasn’t quite become the disruptive force the Niners were hoping for when they drafted him 17th overall in 2015, Armstead has been solid against the pass when he’s been healthy.
After primarily lining up as the “Leo” last season, Armstead has basically traded places with Thomas on the other side of the defensive line and will transition to “big end,” meaning his primary objective will be to stop the run. Doing so frees up Thomas to take over at “Leo” and shift inside on obvious passing downs, which San Francisco believes will give him more chances to pressure the quarterback. So, while it appears that Armstead’s first responsibility in 2018 is to stuff the ball-carrier, he’ll nevertheless remain an important part of a pass rush that must put more heat on the quarterback this season.
Con: Armstead will be significantly overpaid in 2019
$9.046 million is a healthy chunk of change to throw at a former first-rounder who’s only started 11 of 48 games through three seasons, but that’s exactly what Armstead will pull in if he’s still on the roster next year (his contract is only guaranteed for injury… more on that in a moment).
While Armstead’s 2018 salary of $1.777 million is certainly reasonable, San Francisco is primed to pay him like one of the NFL’s elite defensive ends in 2019. In fact, only 14 defensive ends are making more this season than Armstead will next season. Furthermore, he’s slated to be the fourth-highest-paid member of the red and gold next year, trailing only Jimmy Garoppolo ($20 million), Joe Staley ($10.925 million) and Richard Sherman ($10.05 million), and he gets an extra $2 million since he qualifies as an end instead of a tackle.
Unless his play improves significantly in year four and he steers clear of the injury bug, he’ll likely be one of the most overpaid players at his position and on his team in 2019.
Pro: There’s still a way out for San Francisco
If San Francisco’s decision-makers decide Armstead is no longer worth the investment at the conclusion of this season, they’ll have until March of 2019 to cut him and wouldn’t owe him another penny if they did so.
That is, of course, assuming he doesn’t suffer an injury…
Con: Armstead’s deal is fully guaranteed for injury, and he’s ended each of the last two seasons on injured reserve
After taking the field for all 16 games in his rookie campaign in 2015, Armstead has suited up for just 14 over the past two seasons.
And, in a worst-case scenario for both the player and the team, Armstead’s play declines (or plateaus), and he once again suffers a season-ending injury. Since his fifth-year option is guaranteed only for injury, Armstead would indeed collect his $9.046 million in 2019, and there wouldn’t be a thing the Niners could do about it.
Pro: Armstead was off to an impressive start in 2017
Prior to being placed on Injured Reserve after breaking his hand in Week 6 clash against the Redskins, Armstead was arguably enjoying his finest season as a pro, despite a shift from the 3-4 to the 4-3 that didn’t seem to fit his skillset, at least on paper.
Before his campaign came to an abrupt end, however, the then-third-year player had already notched 16 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass defensed while earning favorable grades from Pro Football Focus, which ranked him as the No. 44 edge defender out of 106 qualifiers with a mark of 78.9 (76.3 in pass rush; 79.7 in run defense).
While John Lynch, Kyle Shanahan and company likely would have preferred to assess the Oregon product over the full 2017 campaign before deciding on his fifth-year option, they’ve nevertheless taken a leap of faith due to Armstead’s strong six-game performance from last season. Now it’s up to Armstead to reward their confidence and show that last year’s small sample wasn’t a fluke.
Conclusion: While he’s yet to play up to his lofty draft status, Armstead has shown enough flashes over the past three years to gain the trust of San Francisco’s decision-makers. By retaining Armstead — who earned above average marks against both the run and pass in 2017 — Lynch and Shanahan have taken a calculated risk by keeping the steady (if thus far unspectacular) defensive end in red and gold for the next two seasons. If the Baalke-era holdover can stay healthy and adapt to his new role as the “big end,” he’ll have every chance to put up a career-best campaign in 2018.
Five Matchups to Watch in Preseason Clash with Houston
The race is on for starting gigs, playing time and roster spots, and the San Francisco 49ers’ second game of the preseason against the Houston Texans provides no shortage of intriguing matchups. Here are five to keep an eye on when the Niners embark into NRG Stadium.
Jimmy G vs. the Houston defense
Starting with kind of a broader battle here, as Jimmy Garoppolo steps onto the gridiron against a Houston defense that Pro Football Focus ranks eighth against the run and fifth in pass-rushing coming into this season. The unit boasts a plethora of household names and bona fide playmakers who can get after the quarterback, but the 25th-ranked secondary seemingly remains a weakness after struggling mightily in 2017.
We only got a brief glimpse at Jimmy G during last week’s home clash with the Dallas Cowboys, and the San Francisco signal-caller completed three-of-six passes for 34 yards, while his highlight of the night occurred when he stood in the pocket to absorb a big hit from stud defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and fired a strike to Marquise Goodwin for an 18-yard gain on third-and-10.
While Garoppolo fared well on his only series of the evening, he’ll likely play a bit deeper into Saturday’s clash with Houston, and if he can get passes away in a timely fashion, he could have his way with the Texans’ secondary.
Look for Jimmy to attempt at least one deep ball to Goodwin in the speedster’s mouth-watering matchup against Kevin Johnson, who ranked dead last among 120 qualified corners last season. Pierre Garcon, who is gradually building a rapport with Garoppolo after a slow start this offseason, also gets a good matchup against veteran Johnathan Joseph (the 64th-ranked cornerback with a grade of 67.4), and it would be a good sign if he and his quarterback show that they’re on the same page with a few connections in Week 2.
Jimmie Ward vs. DeAndre Hopkins
There are two reasons why we’re looking forward to this matchup.
One, Wednesday’s training camp fisticuffs.
Two, Jimmie Ward had a rough opener against Dallas, getting torched by third-round rookie Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown and failing to keep up with Allen Hurns when he hauled in a short pass over the middle and hit the jets for a 13-yard gain on third-and-four.
Coming off a subpar performance, San Francisco’s “backup everything” needs to play much better if he wants to remain in the mix for significant regular season snaps and beat out K’Waun Williams for nickelback duties, and he’ll certainly be tested against Houston’s stable of dangerous pass-catchers, not the least of which is All Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who snagged 96 receptions for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017.
Even if he doesn’t line up directly opposite Hopkins (and PFF suggests the honor could fall to Ahkello Witherspoon), the two will still be on the gridiron together just three days after brawling in practice, and they could easily cross paths. Though they reportedly shook hands after each getting ejected from the joint practice, it’s impossible to know what will happen when the competitive juices once again start flowing.
Ward, who could see a good chunk of snaps since he’s entrenched in a multi-man battle for playing time, will be tested no matter who he’s covering, and he has a golden opportunity to all but erase the disappointments of the opener with a big-time performance against a squad that should boast a high-octane passing attack.
Richard Sherman vs. Will Fuller
Staying in the secondary, we move to the other side of the field where Richard Sherman could make his San Francisco debut in an interesting matchup against third-year man Will Fuller, who missed six games last season but still hauled in seven touchdowns while notching 28 receptions for 423 yards. While the abbreviated stat-line isn’t eye-popping, Fuller’s numbers are almost certain to spike with Deshaun Watson back in the fold, and he and the second-year quarterback will look to build a rapport at the expense of Sherman on Saturday.
Sherman’s San Francisco debut carries plenty of intrigue in and of itself, but given that he’s coming off last season’s Achilles injury and a hamstring ailment in training camp, a strong outing from the former Seahawk would alleviate some concerns from the Niner Faithful.
Kyle Shanahan may err on the side of caution and refrain from leaving Sherman on the field for too many snaps in a preseason game, but all eyes will be on the Niners’ prized free agent acquisition as he goes toe-to-toe with arguably one of the league’s most talented young wideouts. Even one or two pass breakups, a solid jam at the line or a sure-handed tackle in run support would go a long way to showing Sherman is healthy and good to go for the regular season.
Sherman isn’t a lock to dress Saturday after missing the preseason opener, but he was a full participant in San Francisco’s final open practice on Monday and in the two inter-squad practices with the Texans during the week, so here’s hoping Niner fans finally get to see him in game action.
Josh Garnett vs. the Houston defensive line
It’s sink or swim time for San Francisco’s 2016 first-rounder.
Assuming he suits up Saturday, it’s not totally inconceivable that he’ll draw the start since Mike Person’s roster spot is looking more secure by the day and because the San Francisco coaches may want to see how the 24-year-old will hold up against starting-caliber players. If Garnett doesn’t start, then he’ll be under even more pressure to perform against Houston’s twos and threes.
With Person playing well enough to earn the starting nod for San Francisco’s preseason opener and Jonathan Cooper and Erik Magnuson also in the mix, Garnett’s place on the 53-man roster is tenuous at best, but he can certainly raise his stock with a strong performance against Houston’s stout front seven.
San Francisco’s offense vs. the crowd noise
San Francisco gets its first taste of football on the road on Saturday, and in a campaign where the Niners travel to thunderously loud outdoor stadiums such as Seattle, Arizona and Kansas City and open with a dome game in Minnesota, the Niners will have to learn to cope with deafening crowd noise.
Of course, the Houstonites may not be quite as jacked up and vocal for a preseason matchup as they would be for the regular season, but it’s good practice all the same.
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