49ers: Arik Armstead has found his niche in the Wide-9 scheme

49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead has found his niche in the team’s Wide-9 scheme and is having a career year as a result.

San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead entered the 2019 season looking to shed a label. Armstead was out to change a reputation that he had earned, partially unfairly, through his first four NFL seasons.

He was bust — or at least that was the general perception.

The dreaded “bust” label is often one given out unjustly to players across all sports. After all, the athletes themselves don’t control where they are selected in the draft nor do they dictate the pre-career hype and media attention.

Armstead has, for all intents and purposes, been a solid NFL player for the past four years. However, his play hasn’t exactly been worthy of the No. 17 overall selection that was used on him back in 2015.

At least, not until this season.

Many were surprised and critical of the 49ers when they decided to pick up Armstead’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract. With just nine sacks in four seasons, it was a fair critique.

But the 49ers clearly saw something in the player the infamous duo of Trent Baalke and Jim Tomsula once called a “project.” And while we can criticize Baalke and Tomsula for plenty of things, this is something they were clearly correct about.

Armstead was far from a finished product coming out of Oregon. He had elite size and was a twitchy athlete but remained relatively raw as a power-rusher. But very few could have predicted it would take him five years to finally make good on his potential.

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That said, he wasn’t exactly put in ideal situations early in his career. Multiple season-ending injuries and constant position changes may have stunted the development of a possibly elite talent.

First it was a torn labrum that ended his sophomore NFL season after just eight games and then it was a broken left hand that cut his season short the following year just six weeks in.

And his development certainly wasn’t helped by his repeated role switches on defense. Drafted as an interior rusher in the 3-4, Armstead was asked to play in the three-technique as a defensive end.

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However, he was soon moved to the outside LEO role upon the hiring of new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and asked to drop a significant amount of weight. But finally, it appears as though Saleh has found the perfect role for Armstead.

The 49ers made the decision to utilize significantly more Wide-9 defensive sets this season — part of the reason for their incredible success this season. This small change in defensive ideology unlocked the 26-year-old’s true potential.

It allowed Armstead to shift back inside and play more of an interior role. However, this wasn’t any ordinary interior role. The defensive line’s alignment left Armstead lined up over opposing offensive tackles more often than not allowing him to still play a pseudo-edge rusher positon.

And the dispersed alignment put Armstead in more one-on-one situations which allowed him to thrive more as a pass rusher. Not only has he been a superb pass rusher more than doubling his previous single-season sack total (7.0), but he’s also been an elite run-stopper.

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Entering the 2019 season, most assumed it would be Armstead’s last with the 49ers. Now, it’s not so clear.

San Francisco will obviously make retaining both George Kittle and DeForest Buckner a priority going forward. But the decision with Armstead has been made a lot more difficult.

Saleh and the 49ers have managed to maximize Armstead’s abilities and he’s now an integral part of one of the best defenses in the NFL.

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And with that, the cries of “bust” have all but disappeared.