The San Francisco 49ers defense will be looking to the defensive line as a potential cornerstone position group. Spending first round picks three straight years will boost expectations for the group, and the 49ers have built depth to have a potentially impressive rotation.
The team will look for Solomon Thomas to develop into a key cog, but in 2017, DeForest Buckner will be as important as anybody. He is coming off a rookie season in which he played more snaps than any other defensive lineman, and he was plenty productive throughout. Pro Football Focus tracks stops by defenders, which they define as, “any instance where the primary tackler prevents an offensive success.” Offensive success is detailed as follows:
1st down: <40% of required yardage
2nd down: <60% of required yardage
3rd down: <100% of required yardage
4th down: <100% of required yardage
No rookie interior defender came close to DeForest Buckner's production on the interior pic.twitter.com/MqwRGmcDHi— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 6, 2017
Buckner is expected to spend the bulk of his time on the interior of the line, but there will be plenty of opportunities to keep him fresh. New defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina said there is no way Buckner will work the kind of snap total he saw in 2016. If the 49ers can keep him fresh, the sky is the limit.
Recently, NDT Scouting took a look back at their Buckner scouting report leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft. They thought he could become more developed with his hands, describing inefficiency in transitioning from his original attack to secondary counters, and an ability to flow more smoothly. However, they see him as an explosive freak of nature.
Buckner is an explosive freak of nature as an athlete capable of winning in a number of ways. His ability to bend and coil to play with leverage and power in addition to the pure speed he illustrates off of the snap when playing for penetration is overwhelming for many offensive linemen to be able to handle. Buckner plays with disruption and constantly thrives in opposing backfield, he has a strong first step when he’s let off the leash along the Oregon defensive front.
It will be interesting to see how exactly the rotation works along the line. Right now, Buckner and Earl Mitchell are set to play the interior spots in the base defense, with Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead potentially on the edges. When they move into their nickel defense, Thomas, Buckner, and Armstead all could fill the two interior roles. Additionally, Ronald Blair, Chris Jones, Quinton Dial, and D.J. Jones all could work their way into the mix in the interior of a variety of packages.
Michael Bennett recently said he thinks Buckner can eventually win a defensive player of the year award. I’m not anticipating that this season by any means, but the skillset he brought from college should continue to translate well. He’ll get plenty of opportunities, but the potential of remaining a little more fresh week in and week out could be huge for him.