SANTA CLARA — Early in his rookie season, Solomon Thomas felt the pressure of being the No. 3 overall pick, knowing 49ers fans were expecting the defensive lineman to post big numbers for a team needing to upgrade its pass rush.
But as Thomas’ first season winds down, with the 49ers’ finale coming Sunday against the Rams, he’s encouraged by his development, even if he has just three sacks.
“I just calmed down and focused on playing football and having fun,” Thomas said.
“And it’s just part of the process of being a rookie, understanding the pressure of the mental game. I’ve grown a lot, and (I’m) just going to continue to grow into the second year.”
Thomas has been asked to play nearly every position on the defensive line, which requires different techniques in coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 scheme he implemented after being hired last February.
Thomas played in a 3-4 scheme up the road at Stanford, where he lined up mainly on the inside as a defensive tackle.
With the 49ers, he has transitioned outside, where he’s forced to set the edge in the running game and get after quarterbacks. His three sacks are tied for 70th in the NFL among defensive linemen.
But Thomas had one of his best games last week in the victory over the Jaguars, which has the coaching staff encouraged as he heads into his first full offseason as a pro. Thomas had six combined tackles and a shoestring sack of Blake Bortles — while the defense limited the league’s top-ranked rushing attack to just 92 yards and 3.3 yards per carry.
“He affected the game in the pass game and the run game, ran to the ball real hard,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Just like most rookies, I think he’s been up and down throughout the year. ... I think these last three weeks he’s gotten better each week and put together his best game last week and hopefully he finishes with his best game of the year this week.”
A knee injury in the middle of the season stalled Thomas’ development. He suffered it in the second half of the dreary 33-10 loss to Philadelphia in Week 8. He missed the following two games and had a bye to continue recovering.
“I hate to give him a loser’s lump or anything,” Saleh said, “but I think he’s really starting to recover from that injury that he suffered earlier in the year and we’re really starting to see what we saw in the first half of the season.”
Having a full offseason in San Francisco’s system should help Thomas improve heading into his second season. He lamented about preparation for the draft last spring, where he had to focus on agility drills rather than playing the game.
“Gaining chemistry with these guys in the offseason, not worrying about the draft, the combine — aka the 40 (yard dash) ... that’ll be nice to worry about just football,” Thomas said.