Since Robert Saleh was hired as the 49ers’ defensive co-ordinator, DeForest Buckner’s fit within the defense has been one of the most common topics for discussion.
Drafted as a 3-4 defensive end to play across from his former teammate at Oregon, Arik Armstead, it appeared that the 49ers had set the interior of their defensive line for half a decade. The change to the 4-3 defense has forced those who had such thoughts to re-appraise the situation significantly and both players’ fits within the new defense has been called into question.
Following Saleh and Buckner’s time before the media on the opening day of the 49ers’ offseason schedule, it was made clear that Buckner would either be playing as the 3-tech tackle or the strong side defensive end.
At the Jaguars, who Saleh was hired away from, the 3-tech defensive tackle was the team’s premier interior pass rusher, whilst the strong-side defensive end was more of a run stopper on first and second downs. In passing situations, the team tended to have two 3-tech defensive tackles to rush from the interior. Malik Jackson, previously a 3-4 end, was signed from the Denver Broncos in early 2016 to play the 3-tech tackle role in Jacksonville.
Additionally, Saleh’s experience in Seattle likely gives an insight into how Buckner might be used as the strong side defensive end. In Seattle, the strong side defensive end on base downs was Michael Bennett, who provided a far superior rushing threat than anyone Jacksonville had at the position as well as having the capacity to kick inside on passing downs and play as a 3-tech rushing tackle. Buckner would have similar capabilities.
It would seem that with Buckner and Armstead, the 49ers have the capacity to combine the schemes somewhat, with a base strong side end capable of being on the field on all three downs (potentially kicking inside on third downs) as well as a pass-rushing 3-tech who is also a three down player. This would potentially qualify as one of the nuances in the scheme that Saleh alluded to during his press conference. Saleh also suggested that there was potential for Armstead to play some LEO. This would indicate that they see him as capable of playing with his hand in the dirt lined up outside the tackle in certain packages.
Based on last season’s performances, Buckner looks particularly well suited to the 3-tech tackle role. A caveat is that Armstead was clearly carrying a shoulder injury, and whilst training camp talk must be taken with a fistful of salt, word that he was head and shoulders above his rookie levels are something worth considering as well. It may well be that both Buckner and Armstead play similar roles on the defense, both rotating between 3-tech tackle or some strong side defensive end, with Armstead kicking even further outside in certain packages in order to best accommodate the 49ers’ personnel.
Quick stats and facts
In matches that I charted:
- Buckner spent 48 percent of plays lined up as a 3-tech (both sub and base packages). He has considerable experience playing that spot on the defensive line, albeit not in this scheme.
- He spent 22 percent of plays lined up as a 5-tech (largely in base)
- He actually had around 25 percent of snaps at 1-tech (only in sub-packages)
- Spent a very small amount of time lined up outside tackle
On the season, Buckner had 6.0 sacks and 73 total tackles across 15 matches
If Buckner is going to be a success in either role, though particularly as the 3-tech tackle, his pass rushing has to be incredibly strong. As a rookie, and especially towards the end of the season, he started to consistently play well in this area, grading as the 25th best interior pass rusher in the NFL (out of 118 qualifying players) as a rookie per PFF.
He had the most success as a rusher from the 3-tech spot, showing particular aptitude at bull-rushing interior linemen. Additionally, he developed an effective swim move, though on occasion the latter in particular was unsuccessful because he got too high, which is unsurprising given Buckner is 6’7. His long arms invariably give him a reach advantage over guards and centers and his ability to convert speed to power was often too much for them.
When rushing against tackles (which is most common from the 5-tech position the strong-side end would play) Buckner was far less successful. He tends to lacks the reach advantage that he enjoys over interior linemen and he lacks the explosion or bend to greatly threaten the edge. Though he has powerful hands, he tended not to have the explosiveness to convert an early win to a quarterback hit or hurry. His bull rush could certainly be effective in these situations however.
Nevertheless, if Buckner can continue to develop as a pass rusher, he can have considerable success as the pass rushing tackle or the strong side defensive end in this scheme due to the combination of good technique and his outrageous physical tools. He can physically dominate guards and centers in particular as a rusher and this is an area that the 49ers can get a huge amount out of production out of Buckner.
As either the 3-tech defensive tackle or as the strong-side end, Buckner must be able to stop the run. This was undoubtedly Buckner’s weakness last season, though he developed as a run defender throughout the season and again, was most effective when lined up at 3-tech. Additionally, moving to a system where he can one-gap should help him significantly against the run.
In much the same way as in the passing game, his physique gives him unique advantages as well as carrying with it some disadvantages in the run game. He can use his arms and strength to jolt linemen, before they get into his pads and towards the end of the season got far better at creating a strong base and staying lower to avoid being driven well of the ball by guards and tackles.
He developed an impressive ability to stack and shed and an entire offseason programme in the NFL should see him develop the functional strength that was already at a level to enable him to toss linemen in the run game if necessary.
The one caveat here is that Buckner struggled considerably when facing double teams. However, Buckner did demonstrate that he had the capability to hold his ground against double teams as well as beat them on occasion to make a play. He would also not expect to face as many double teams as the 3-tech tackle, as the nose tackle is supposed to draw the vast majority of double teams. However, as he would likely expect to be lined up on the strong-side of the formation as either a 3-tech tackle or as the strong-side end, he will have to continue to improve taking on double teams.
At 5-tech, he was more frequently man-handled by offensive tackles in the run game but did demonstrate the ability to get inside tackles and into the backfield due to his good first step.
His run defense will be the biggest question mark, but he has shown the ability to be a highly capable run defender, either at tackle or at strong-side end.
Buckner would appear to be best suited to the 3-tech role defensive tackle role in the 49ers new defensive scheme, though he also appears capable of playing strong-side defensive end. Not only does he have significant experience playing at 3-tech, he is a very capable interior pass rusher, especially against the interior linemen he would face on a play by play basis due to his long arms and power. He developed his pass-rushing moves during his rookie season considerably, and an entire offseason in an NFL programme should further improve him in this area.
He is weaker against the run than he is a pass rusher, but his physical tools also serve him well in this area. Provided he can keep his pad level low, Buckner can hold his ground and beat offensive linemen to make a play on the ball carrier. The shift to a one-gapping role should also help him play faster.
If he continues to develop, Buckner can be a crucial cog on this defensive line for the duration of his rookie contract and beyond. He could become one of the most effective 4-3 pass rushing tackles in the league, in addition to offering the flexibility to play strong-side defensive end to an incredibly high level. Combined with Arik Armstead, in addition to fellow 2016 rookie Ronald Blair, the 49ers have three incredibly versatile pieces that can be used along their defensive line in a variety of different roles.