SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Because of an archaic NFL rule, San Francisco 49ers rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas wasn't allowed to participate in the offseason program after they used the No. 3 overall pick on him in this year's NFL draft.
The rule, which prevents players from joining their teams until their school's academic year is complete, allowed for Thomas to take the short trip from Stanford's Palo Alto campus to Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara for one rookie minicamp. Otherwise, Thomas was barred from the Niners' training facility until Stanford finished its final quarter in mid-June.
During Thomas' time away, he and the Niners had to adhere to even more arcane rules, with limits on when and how much he could talk to defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina.
"I forget the exact rules -- they're allowed to FaceTime at a certain time at night, and it's real confusing," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "But we did as much as we could.”
Thomas took it upon himself to do even more. While Thomas' classmates finished their school year, he decided to enroll in as many pass-rushing classes as possible, taught by some of the game's most legendary and prolific performers.
Before the draft, Thomas also appeared on former Niners coach Steve Mariucci's show "Game Changers" on NFL Network. Thomas met and worked with former star defensive ends DeMarcus Ware and Willie McGinest.
As the Niners worked out in Santa Clara, Thomas returned to his home near Dallas and reconnected with Ware. Ware and Thomas spent a few days working out together at Impact Performance and Fitness in Southlake, Texas.
Upon returning to the Bay Area, Thomas learned that Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp would be in the area. Mariucci had connected Thomas and Sapp during Thomas' time on "Game Changers," and Thomas sought out Sapp for another round of workouts.
Thomas capped off his crash course in offseason training by attending Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller's "pass-rush summit" at Stanford at the end of June. Thomas had access to the wisdom of the likes of Miller, Ware, Seattle's Cliff Avril and Atlanta's Vic Beasley Jr., among others.
"It was just great to learn from all those guys," Thomas said. "They've got so much knowledge and I'm just trying to take it all in, add it to my game and make myself a better player."
The soft-spoken Thomas did his best to stay in tune with what the Niners were doing in addition to working on pass-rush moves with some of the greats who came before him. During that rookie minicamp, Thomas was able to get his hands on a team-issued iPad with all of the necessary film. Thomas spent evenings studying the Niners' organized team activities and would get in touch with Zgonina during the allowable times to go over what he was seeing.
"There were certain times where I could call him," Thomas said. "I couldn't have face-to-face contact with him at all -- it was against the rules. But we just followed the rules right and I just called him when I could and I got the whole playbook, all the updates, all the film I could watch whenever I want -- it was uploaded, so I was able to watch every practice and go through all the installs by myself."
After missing the Niners' first practice of this training camp last week -- he actually signed his rookie deal as it was going on -- Thomas was on the field on Saturday and clearly in a hurry to make up for lost time. Shanahan and the Niners' coaching staff threw Thomas into the mix right away, and he's already made his presence felt with a few sacks and some batted passes in the first few practices.
Thomas, who has been working as the "big" defensive end and as a three-technique defensive tackle, hasn't stopped seeking the advice of great pass-rushers who have preceded him. While he was still at Stanford, the 49ers signed defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who has been to five Pro Bowls and has 99 career sacks.
At various points in the Niners' first few practices, Dumervil has been spotted answering questions from Thomas or taking him aside and offering some tips. Dumervil already was a little familiar with Thomas because they have the same agent, and Dumervil has been impressed with how Thomas approaches the game.
"There's a reason he went with the No. 3 pick," Dumervil said. "I want to make sure we understand that he's a dominant player. He'll be dominant this year, but I made a commitment to him that anything I see that can help him, I'll be there to try to help if he has any questions. But like I explained to him, you are here for a reason. You were the third pick for a reason."
For now, Thomas is still working his way up the depth chart, but the early returns have been positive. Shanahan has been impressed with his ability to retain information. The next step is translating that knowledge onto the field.
“I know Solomon's been working and I know you can tell he can do it all on the board," Shanahan said. "You can't just do that unless you’ve been studying it hard. But studying it, it gives you a chance to get better on the field, but you've got to go through it. You can't think when the ball is snapped. We move a lot. It changes responsibilities every time a tight end crosses the center.
"You think in the heat of the battle, it takes reps. So I'm glad to have him out here. He's going to have the time to get those reps. [He's] definitely behind the eight-ball in missing that time, but I'm confident it'll get there."