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49ers: Pros and cons of keeping DE Arik Armstead in San Francisco

Jon Chik

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49ers Arik Armstead
© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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