SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For those who keep tabs on the various mock drafts that permeate the internet at this time of year, you've probably noticed a decided shift in approach for the San Francisco 49ers in the eyes of the pundits.
Where once the Niners' No. 2 pick in the draft was home to quarterbacks, quarterbacks and more quarterbacks, there's been a recent change in the line of thinking that now has them pursuing someone who is best at chasing quarterbacks rather than being one.
That someone is Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, who is the choice for the Niners in ESPN draft analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. in their latest mock drafts as well as other prominent mock drafters. It's a choice that has raised some eyebrows among 49ers followers if for no other reason than the team has spent its past two first-round picks on defensive linemen in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
Widely regarded as one of the cleanest and most polished prospects in the draft, Thomas participated in Stanford's pro day on Thursday, an event that was important enough to cajole Niners coach Kyle Shanahan out of his Levi's Stadium office and away from the many things on his plate.
Speaking to reporters after the pro day, Shanahan made it clear that recent drafts of which he was not a part won't play into which direction the Niners go.
"It really doesn't concern me what we've done in the past. Or what we're going to do in the future," Shanahan said. "It's what we have now. If we think that player can help us and improve us then that's what we'll do. You want to get the best guy possible. So there's lot of options and we've got lots of positions to find that at, too."
One area of need is definitely pass-rusher. Over the past three seasons, San Francisco has managed a sack on six percent of opponents' pass attempts, which ranks 24th in the league. In that time, the 49ers haven't had a player register more than 6 1/2 sacks in a season.
Obviously, a premiere pass-rusher would be a boon to a defense that was the worst in the NFL last season. The question then becomes is Thomas the right guy for the team's new-look 4-3 defense?
At 6-foot-2, 273 pounds, Thomas had 102 tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 27 games in Palo Alto. For the Cardinal, Thomas lined up all over the place and believes his positional versatility is an asset because it means any team can confidently draft him and have a place where he can succeed.
"It's an advantage to be versatile," Thomas told ESPN's David Lombardi. "It's an advantage that I can fit into any system. I can play in a 3-4, I can play in a 4-3. I can excel as a 3-tech, I can excel as a 5-tech. I can work anywhere from a 3-tech inside all the way to a 9 [edge rushing from the outside]. I can stand up or have my hand in the dirt."
In new coordinator Robert Saleh's defense, the Niners would best bolster their pass rush by finding someone to play the "Leo" position. That player lines up to the outside of the left tackle and on the edge next to a three-technique defensive tackle. While it's unclear exactly where the 49ers intend to put Buckner and Armstead, the most likely outcome would have Armstead at the other defensive end spot with Buckner playing the three-technique.
In this defense, the "Leo" is supposed to be the best pass-rusher and it would stand to reason that if the Niners were investing the No. 2 overall pick in a player, he would be one that excels in that area.
So, does Thomas fit that mold?
"I believe so," Shanahan said. "I believe he can line up probably anywhere inside that he wants. But still not done with my research yet. So still working on it more."
To get a more definitive answer, I asked an NFC scout who has taken a look at Thomas and asked if he would make sense playing the "Leo" for the Niners. The scout told me he could "totally see that" as a fit for Thomas and went on to say he could envision Thomas as a three-technique, a Leo or even a left defensive end in a 40 front. Although Thomas' pass rushing numbers might not jump off the page, the scout believes Thomas is at his best as "an explosive penetrator" and spoke highly of his instincts and "super high" motor.
"He's easily among [the] top 10 players in this draft," the scout said.
Which means for a Niners team open to just about anything in this draft, Thomas will be a strong consideration.