You probably have the urge to compare Oregon standout defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to his former teammate, and 49ers’ first-round selection in last year’s draft, Arik Armstead. And on some level, you wouldn’t be wrong to do so.
There are the obvious size parallels; at 6-foot–7 and a cheat day away from 300 pounds, both players bear a stronger resemblance to The Mountain than your typical professional football player. Even their skill sets and playing styles share some high-level similarities. But DeForest Buckner is not Arik Armstead—he’s much better.
That’s not a knock on Armstead, who flashed many positive things during limited action in his rookie season, as much as it’s high praise for Buckner. Buckner was a far more productive college player, even while the two shared the same defensive line, and is a more polished prospect entering the league. Let’s turn to the tape and see exactly what Buckner brings to the table.
Where he wins
That’s Buckner driving Jack Conklin—the mauling Michigan State tackle who is also expected to hear his name called on the draft’s opening night next week—backward several yards into the backfield before sliding off to help bring down the ballcarrier for a loss. This was one of the first Buckner snaps I watched, but the brute strength he displayed here permeated every area of his game.
Buckner plays with proper leverage, staying low and using those massive tree trunks he calls arms to get into the chest of the blocker, more often than not, something that can be challenging for a player with his height. So long as he plays with that leverage, offensive lineman move. It’s really that simple. Watch him when things are rolling well, and stacking and shedding opposing tackles appears effortless.
This strength translates to the pass rush as well, where Buckner led an incredibly talented class of interior defensive lineman with 67 total quarterback pressures. And with opposing offensive lines paying him so much attention—he was routinely double-teamed, particularly when rushing the passer—Buckner had to pay the iron price for those pressures, evidenced by his 534 snaps per unblocked pressure figure, per Pro Football Focus, meaning he was rarely given an easy pressure. Buckner’s go-to pass rush move in the games I viewed, unsurprisingly, was the bullrush, which he often used to simply walk lineman back into the quarterback’s lap to collapse the interior of the pocket as he did on this play versus Washington:
Though strength is the first thing you’ll likely notice about Buckner’s game, it’s not the only thing. With a pSPARQ score that puts him in the 54th percentile among NFL interior defensive lineman, Buckner is an above-average athlete for his position. For comparison, Armstead tested slightly better than Buckner (64th percentile pSPARQ score), but from the tape I felt like Buckner showed slightly better short-area quickness and agility.
Buckner’s athleticism was most obvious when he kicked down inside to rush the passer, where he was far too athletic for opposing guards to handle in pass protection. Buckner often won inside with an arm-over move, which served as his primary complement to the bullrush, to generate quick pressure on the quarterback.
Buckner isn’t the sort of elite athlete that will spend a lot of time rushing off the edge in the NFL, but plays like the one above show how his athleticism can be an asset at the next level and contributed to Buckner finishing with the third-best pass rush productivity in this draft class when lined up as a defensive tackle, per Pro Football Focus. This experience playing inside, and performing at a high level, will serve him well in the sub-packages that have become the new base defense in the current NFL game.
In the run game, you really had an opportunity to see the type of athlete Buckner is when he was forced to handle cut blocks…
…or when you watched him chase down ballcarriers from the backside of zone runs.
Buckner’s combination of strength and athleticism, particularly at his size, allowed him to be one of the most consistently disruptive players in this draft class, regardless of where he lined up and regardless of whether he was defending the run or pass.
Where he struggles
There’s not much dislike about Buckner’s game, but there are a couple of areas he’ll need to improve upon at the next level. My biggest concern is Buckner’s ability to anchor against double teams in the run game.
Back at the beginning of the article, the first play we looked at came from the Michigan State game and saw Buckner get the better of Spartans left tackle, Jack Conklin. While Buckner certainly had his moments in that battle, Conklin and left guard Travis Jackson beat up Buckner a bit in that contest, sometimes knocking him upwards of five yards off the ball.
It wasn’t always a double team that got Buckner off balance, stumbling, and sometimes on his back in this game; other times, Conklin was able to produce similar results on down blocks by himself. For Buckner, this was largely an issue of leverage and technique. As we covered in the previous section, he typically does a fine job in this respect, and certainly plays with proper leverage more often than Armstead did in Eugene. But when he gets himself in trouble, it’s usually because he came off the ball high, therefore losing his leverage and strength, which caused bad things to happen.
Getting off blocks was the other thing that popped up from time to time with Buckner. Even when firmly in control of the lineman, he can struggle disengaging in time to come off the block and tackle the ballcarrier or go get the quarterback. Armstead struggled with this at Oregon as well. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe it’s something with the way Oregon’s coaching staff wants them to play. I can’t say for sure, but becoming more proficient at ridding himself of blockers earlier in the process will help Buckner take his high level of college production with him to the pros.
The bottom line
Buckner is an ideal fit as a 3-4 defensive end, but he doesn’t have to be pigeonholed in that one spot. He aligned at nearly every position along Oregon’s defensive line over his final two college seasons, and is capable of doing the same in the NFL. His upside is tremendous thanks to some freaky physical tools, but he’s not all projection. Buckner paired his impressive size, strength, and athleticism with high-end production that should translate to the pro game. He should be a plus-pass rusher on the interior in sub-packages from day one, and has the potential to become a dominant run defender if he can iron out his technique issues versus double teams and play low on an every down basis.
Selecting Armstead in the first round of last year’s draft shouldn’t deter the 49ers from calling Buckner’s name with the 7th overall pick this year, should he fall to them. By reuniting the former Oregon teammates, San Francisco can solidify the first line of their defensive front for years to come.
Edit: The article was modified from its original version to correct an error with one of the clips that was used.