The San Francisco 49ers signed 6-foot-7 first-round pick Arik Armstead to a four-year contract Friday, marking the tenth and final 49er pick to land their first NFL contract.
Armstead joins draft mates such as second-rounder Jaquiski Tartt and converted tight end Blake Bell, who were all signed earlier this week.
According to 49ers Head Coach Jim Tomsula, the rookies are already building a rapport before heading into training camp:
“It’s awesome to see right now. We’re out here in our T-shirts and shorts, getting as close to football as you can get, but it’s not football. … You’re looking for those things, the way they interact after a drill, (and) the way they interact after a play … that part is going well so far.”
Armstead’s selection comes at the end of a tumultuous offseason, which saw defensive stars Patrick Willis and Chris Borland unexpectedly call it quits, creating All Pro-sized needs in the run-stopping department.
With that, the 49ers have high hopes for the almost 300-pound Armstead, who joins the team after a three-year career at the University of Oregon where he recorded 4 sacks, 87 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss in 39 games.
The 49ers annually boast a Top 10 rush defense, dipping as low as the seventh-best unit in 2014. Although Willis and the linebacking corps played a key role in leading the defense, runstopper Justin Smith arguably had the biggest impact in slowing opponents’ ground games.
To be seen is whether Armstead will be able to learn from Smith, or have to fill his shoes, but Tomsula said it is something the team trying not to think about as the season draws closer:
“I haven’t seen him or talked to him. … That time will come, (but) we’re not trying to make this a saga … We’ll know here (eventually), because it’s getting to that time where you gotta know something.”
Former Samford safety Tartt comes to training camp in a similar situation as his predecessor Jimmie Ward, who the 49ers picked up in the first round of the 2014 draft. Both were drafted as safeties onto a team that already has veterans Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid slotted into the starting lineup.
Ward eventually found a spot on the defense as a slot corner in nickel packages. Tartt, who wowed scouts at the Senior Bowl for his physically aggressive style of play, could potentially find himself filling a similar role.
As for right now, Tartt said he is focused on learning the playbook, and learning more from his veteran teammates, Bethea and Reid:
“They’re phenomenal guys, and they’re extremely smart. … I thought I was smart coming out of college, but it’s a different level of smart, to me, just watching those guys in the meeting room, and translating things from the meeting room to the field.”
While the defense tries to patch its holes with rookies, the 49ers offense is adding any firepower it can to help quarterback Colin Kaepernick find the groove he’s been searching for since his magical Super Bowl run in 2012.
The 49ers 2014 wide receiver unit was notoriously unexplosive, recording only four completions of 40 yards or more. The team acquired a proven deep threat in Torrey Smith, to aid speedsters Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton stretch the field.
In the 2015 draft, though, the team drafted only receiver DeAndre Smelter, a big and imposing wide receiver from Georgia Tech notable for having the largest hands of his draft class.
In addition to Smelter, the 49ers also added tight end Bell in hopes of filling a void left by Delanie Walker when he signed with the Tennessee Titans before the 2013 season.
Bell made a name for himself as an Oklahoma Sooner who transitioned from quarterback to tight end after showing physicality and speed in Bob Stoops’ high-scoring offense.
The new tight end finds himself in crowded company and will battle for a spot with players like Asante Cleveland, Derek Carrier and Garrett Celek, who managed their way onto the 53-man roster in previous seasons with the 49ers.
Bell has already taken time to learn from the veteran tight ends, including two-time pro bowler Vernon Davis:
“It’s honestly a great group of guys. … All of the guys have been real helpful with teaching me everything on the field. Vernon took me today though different routes and showed me kind of how he does it and how he sees it.”
Tomsula made it clear that no spot is guaranteed coming into his inaugural season. One surprising 49ers pick in 2015 was the fifth-round selection of punter Bradley Pinion (Clemson) to compete with 11-year veteran Andy Lee.
The two punters could find themselves deadlocked in battle for the sole punting spot on the team, and Pinion said he has not had any contact with Lee up to this point. Despite a seemingly imminent battle between the two, Pinion said is looking forward to learning from the four-time All-Pro.
“I’ve only heard great things about him. … I’m actually looking forward to learning from him because he’s been year for (over) 10 years, and he’s a heck of a punter.”
With the rookies all under contract, the 49ers now look ahead to OTAs, which start May 19 to 21, and the last sets of OTAs which end June 5. Players will report to mandatory camp June 9 to 11, followed by another rookie camp which is yet to be announced.