MIAMI – Arik Armstead’s critics used to be numerous and boisterous. Search “Arik Armstead bust” on Twitter and you’ll find a multitude of receipts from 49ers fans who’d given up on the San Francisco 49ers' 2015 first-round pick.
First rounders in the NFL aren’t given the benefit of patience. Fair or not, they’re expected to contribute immediately. After being drafted 17th overall out of Oregon, Armstead’s rookie season was modest at best with just 19 tackles and two sacks. He then played just 14 combined games over the next two years after suffering back-to-back season ending injuries: a shoulder injury in 2016 and a broken hand in 2017.
Between the labels of “bust” and “injury prone,” many fans felt like they’d seen enough.
“It definitely fueled me,” Armstead said on Monday at Super Bowl Opening Night. “People have their opinions of you and they oftentimes switch their opinions. When things aren’t going good, they want to be negative and then when things are going good, they want to be positive. It fuels me when people talk negatively about me. I always knew the player I was and what I was capable of.”
Fortunately, Armstead had plenty of support from within the 49ers organization. Kyle Shanahan, who took over as head coach in 2017, never lost faith in the embattled defensive lineman. That’s noteworthy given the natural urge of first-year head coaches to clean house and make the roster their own.
Shanahan recalled Armstead dominating during OTAs in 2017.
“He would destroy our practices sometimes because we couldn’t block him,” said Shanahan, who never bought into the idea that Armstead was a bust. “Then we got into the year and he didn’t have all the statistics which made people get down on him, but I always thought he was playing at a high level.”
DeForest Buckner, a fellow 49ers defensive lineman as well as Armstead’s teammate and roommate at Oregon, admired his friend’s mental toughness through years of adversity. The age of social media make it tougher and tougher to ignore the noise.
“It’s amazing to see,” Buckner said. “Honestly, his mental strength, man, not wavering when everybody was calling him a bust. Putting all of that stuff in the back seat and just keep going forward.”
Armstead’s haters are quiet these days. Their ammunition has run dry after Armstead posted 10 sacks in 2019 and helped power the 49ers to a berth in Super Bowl LIV. He’s a key cog in the NFL’s most feared defensive line along with Buckner, Dee Ford and Nick Bosa.
His breakout season has been simultaneous to San Francisco’s meteoric rise to become NFC Champions. After winning at least 11 games in his three seasons at Oregon, Armstead endured four losing seasons to begin his NFL career. The 49ers posted a combined 17-47 record from 2015-18. Between a dominant pass rush, a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo and a standout running game, everything clicked all at once for San Francisco in 2019.
“It’s been building for a long time coming, the adversity – both as a team and individually,” Armstead said. “It makes that moment that much sweeter.”
Armstead couldn’t have picked a better time for his breakout campaign. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and the former Duck is set to cash in. Purse strings will be tight in San Francisco as the 49ers are getting thin on cap space. They might not be able to match offers from other bidders around the NFL. Of note, the Seahawks have cash to burn could be a potential suitor given their pressing need to improve the pass rush.
But Armstead reiterated that he hasn’t thought about what might come next. A matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs awaits on Sunday, which means 60 minutes of chasing superstar QB Patrick Mahomes. That’s all that matters this week in Miami.
“I want to be remembered forever as a Super Bowl Champion,” he said.
It’s conceivable that Armstead’s next few months will include a ring and a sizeable raise. Not bad for a bust.