The San Francisco 49ers invested a first round pick in the defensive line three straight seasons in 2015 (Arik Armstead), 2016 (DeForest Buckner), and 2016 (Solomon Thomas). Armstead has bounced inside and outside, and will handle the big end position in his fourth season. Thomas started at big end last year, but is moving over to the LEO weak side end position this season. Both Thomas and Armstead are expected to move inside on passing down situations.
We don’t know for sure what to make of either Armstead or Thomas because of injuries for the former and only one season under his belt for the latter. We don’t have the same issue with Buckner. With two seasons under his belt, Buckner has emerged as the 49ers best defensive player, and is developing into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
Buckner has struggled to close the deal on sacks, but it’s not for lack of effort. He led interior defensive linemen in QB hits, and the few times he was not on the field, his absence was felt, according to Pro Football Focus. The 49ers ranked 11th in pressure rate at 36.5 percent when Buckner was in the lineup. When he was off the field, they had a pressure rate of 28.1 percent, which would have been lowest in the league. Suffice to say, he’s kind of important.
Experience: 2 accrued seasons
Weight: 300 lbs.
Buckner is entering the third season of his four-year rookie contract. He is due a base salary of $630,000 and roster bonus money totaling $1,473,726. His contract is fully guaranteed. After this season, the team has to decide whether or not to exercise his fifth year option. They will also have the option to begin negotiating a contract extension with Buckner.
How He Might Improve
The big difference will be if he can start to close the deal on sacks. QB pressures and hits are important to the rest of the pass rush. When he was off the field, the 49ers sack rate dropped by over 1.0 percent despite blitzing slightly more often, according to PFF. Buckner has said if he has “that extra step,” he can start to finish those sacks. If he can find that extra step, he’s got the talent to grab double digit sacks.
Beyond just the extra step, he could see his numbers increase with improved play around him. If Arik Armstead can stay healthy and/or Solomon Thomas can break out after an up and down rookie year, or even if they can get more pressure from guys like Jerry Attaochu and Cassius Marsh, Buckner’s will improve. The talent is clear, now it’s a matter of getting that little something extra to take it to another level.
How He Might Regress
I don’t see him regressing, so much as just not finding that extra step. I think it would be more because of the talent around him though. Even without the accompanying sacks, he’s proven he can get to the quarterback. He’s entering only his third season, so the sky would still seem to be the limit for Buckner.
Odds of Making the Roster
He’s not going anywhere. The bigger question is when will the team extend him? He is not yet eligible for a contract extension, but he will be after this season. If a deal is not done, the team is guaranteed to exercise his fifth year option, which would keep him under 49ers control through 2020. I have a feeling he has a contract extension before he reaches his option year.