It is no secret that the story behind the San Francisco 49ers’ success in 2019 stemmed from their dominant play at the line of scrimmage, specifically with its defensive line.
Whether it was Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner or Dee Ford, it seemed like disruption was inevitable on each snap. The forgotten player of that daunted group is defensive tackle Arik Armstead, another former first-round draft pick.
Armstead enjoyed a massive breakout season with a career-high 10 sacks and two forced fumbles. The only other interior defensive lineman to record double digit sack numbers in 2019? Aaron Donald — the undisputed best defensive player in football. So for Armstead, this breakout season could not have come at a more opportune time, as he now enters this offseason an unrestricted free agent set for a monster pay day.
With so many resources already invested on the defensive line, is it worth it to pay Armstead top IDL money? San Francisco may decide to run it back, especially with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh still in town and franchise him for one more year. On the other hand, the 49ers may move on and use that cap space towards addressing a position of need, as opposed to their biggest position of strength. That’s the purpose of this free agent profile — to break down the outlook of bringing Armstead back into the fold.
WHERE HE WINS
The most impressive aspect of Armstead’s game is just how physically imposing he is at the point of attack. At 6-foot-7, 290 pounds, good luck trying to handle his combination of length, power and explosion. He can two gap against the run and hold the edge as a five technique, and he can shift down to the three technique and get early disruption in the backfield. His first-step quickness and lower-body explosiveness as a pass rusher makes it almost impossible for interior offensive linemen to have a chance — considering how long he is. I mean, look at these numbers from the 2015 combine.
- Vertical Jump: 34 inches (93rd percentile)
- Broad Jump: 117 inches (97th percentile)
Consider this: Those numbers Armstead put up in the jumps are better than what Antonio Brown measured in at. That explosion shows on the field, and for the first time in his career, he seemed to put it all together mentally in 2019 — resulting in a 10-sack season. Versatility is king in today’s NFL, and with his ability to play virtually any position on the defensive line, Armstead will likely receive one of the most lucrative contracts of any free agent this offseason.
POTENTIAL RED FLAGS
Ever heard of the team — one year wonder? There will be plenty of sirens going off with that label attached to Armstead this offseason. The biggest question teams will have to ask themselves is if Armstead’s 2019 production was the product of the talent around him.
The team added Bosa and Ford to this defensive line, and all of a sudden, Armstead’s sack production went from nine total sacks in his first four years to 10 in just one season. With much of the attention going to players like Bosa, Ford, Buckner and others, it opened up a lot of pass rush opportunities for Armstead; and he capitalized on them.
However, what’s going to happen when Armstead is paid to be “the guy,” as opposed to third- or fourth-best option on the defensive line? The expectation for him will then become to produce double-digit sack numbers perennially, and I’m not sure he’s capable of doing that. We could look back on this offseason two to three years from now and see that Armstead was drastically overpaid.
This is going to be a fascinating free agency for interior defensive linemen, as players like Chris Jones, Jordan Phillips, Michael Brockers, DJ Reader and Armstead will all be looking to set and test the market with huge pay days.
Let’s take a look at some recent contracts at the position to get a better idea of the actual amount we can expect for someone like Armstead.
- Grady Jarrett: four years, $68 million; $17 million APY (July 2019)
- Jurrell Casey: four years, $60 million; $15 million APY (July 2017)
- Akiem Hicks: four years, $48 million; $12 million APY (September 2017)
- Sheldon Richardson: three years, $36 million; $12 million APY (March 2019)
Looking at those numbers, it appears like the starting number for Armstead is right around Jarrett’s number at $17 million, considering he is only 26 years old and coming off the best season of his career. The 49ers could also franchise tag him for next season for a projected $18 million.
POTENTIAL LANDING SPOTS
San Francisco 49ers
There is nothing the 49ers would like to do more than to run it back for one more season with this elite defensive line. Think about it. Armstead just had a double-digit sack season as a defensive tackle, yet he is the third option of that unit, at best, behind Bosa and Buckner. It would be smart for San Francisco to recapture lightning in a bottle with the same group, but I doubt there would be any long-term contract talks here, and Armstead knows he would be wise to cash in after his 2019 season.
With projected $86 million in cap space and a huge need along the interior defensive line, especially in a division against the likes of Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans, adding a player like Armstead makes a ton of sense for the Indianapolis Colts. General Manager Chris Ballard believes in building a team from the inside-out, and we’ve seen that come to fruition on the offensive line over the last two seasons. Now, I expect a heavy emphasis on the defensive line, and Armstead could be the top target of that shift in Indianapolis.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ndamukong Suh is not expected to return Tampa Bay in 2020, and with over $84 million in projected cap space, the Buccaneers can do a lot of damage in free agency to fill that void. Armstead might not be as great of a scheme fit in Tampa Bay as he is in Indianapolis, but this defense needs more explosiveness and pass rush value from the interior of its front, and Armstead provides that.