Editor’s note: The 49ers break for the bye week with a 2-8 record. This is part of a series that recaps the first 10 games with an eye to the future.
In this installment, we look at the player whose future with the 49ers could be determined by his play in the final six games.
The 49ers are in search of closers.
Protecting a three-point lead with just under three minutes remaining in regulation Monday night, the 49ers put the four defensive linemen considered their best pass rushers onto the field to snuff out quarterback Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Defensive end Arik Armstead did not play a snap for the remainder of the game. He had a spot on the sideline as a spectator, along with Solomon Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
“I would have liked to see them in there more on the last drive,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “They didn't get in there enough.”
Thomas is going nowhere after two seasons. But the 49ers have to make a decision with Armstead, who is completing his fourth NFL season.
Armstead was the No. 17 overall pick in the 2015 draft. In April, the 49ers picked up the fifth-year option for the 2019 season on Armstead. As a defensive end selected from picks 11 to 32, that option is $9.046 million.
But the money does not become fully guaranteed until the start of the 2019 league year in March. Up to that point, the money is guaranteed for injury only. So the 49ers will have a window of more than two months after this season to decide whether Armstead is worth keeping around as the team’s highest-paid defensive player for next season.
Does Armstead fit the 49ers’ defensive scheme? Does he provide the club with an element that general manager John Lynch cannot get at a less-expensive cost in free agency?
Armstead already has played more games (10) than he did in each of the past two seasons, when he was relegated to just eight and six in 2016 and 2017 because of shoulder and hand injuries.
Armstead has nine sacks in his 40-game NFL career. On Monday, he was used primarily on run downs.
He is tied with Cassius Marsh for second on the 49ers (behind DeForest Buckner) with 26 total quarterback pressures – consisting of three sacks, six hits and 17 hurries on 220 pass-rush snaps this season.
Armstead has yet to find his niche in the 49ers’ scheme on those all-important nickel pass-rush situations. Against the Giants, Sheldon Day and Ronald Blair were the players selected to join Buckner as interior pass rushers during crunch time.
He will get opportunities in the final six games, but Armstead might have to prove to the 49ers he's worthy of that hefty price tag for next season to still have a spot on the team.