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Breaking down the case for re-signing Arik Armstead and trading DeForest Buckner

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Trading away Buckner allows the 49ers more roster flexibility.

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Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The 49ers entered the offseason with many questions about the construction of the roster going forward. For as well as the team played this season, there are still positions that are in dire need of an upgrade if the team wishes to remain competitive heading into next season.

The drawback is the team had just over $13 million in cap space remaining per Over The Cap prior to free agency beginning last week. And some key players need to be locked up in the next 12 months, and they still have draft picks they’ll have to sign in a few months.

The looming cap issues would stall signing some key players unless they figured out a way to get some relief. To get the cap relief, the 49ers traded away defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the Colts 13th pick in the NFL draft during the legal tampering period on March 16th, two days before the official start of free agency.

The trade freed up an additional $12 million in cap space since the Colts took on the final year of Buckner’s deal in addition to the new contract they just gave him that they, in turn used to re-sign safety Jimmie Ward a couple of days later.

Just before that, defensive lineman Arik Armstead cashed in on a new deal with the 49ers for six years and $85 million. I won’t get into too many of the details here, and you can read about them here. Still, the contract is a team-friendly deal that has a larger, heavily back-loaded cap to give the 49ers the flexibility they need for the free agency period as well as the draft and in future years when the cap increases.

Armstead had his best season thus far, recording 13 sacks, good for second on the team. He recorded 73 total pressures (13 sacks, ten hits, 50 hurries) and made a strong case for returning in 2020. We’ll look at Jimmie Ward in the next article. For now, the focus is on the case for and against Armstead.

Is Arik Armstead a product of the talent around him?

The short answer is yes and no. Armstead had a decent year in 2018 and played two full seasons in two years, his third full season in five years. In 2019, Armstead was second on the team in sacks (13) and total pressures (73), according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). There are multiple ways to view his breakout the fifth year.

In run defense, Armstead was the 5th best edge defender against the run per PFF. Among all defensive linemen, both interior and edge, he was the 8th best. And graded against all defenders, he was still in the top 20, coming in at 17th overall.

In the running game, he’s very effective at setting the edge and making stops, which cannot be overstated on early downs in a series and giving the rest of the defense a chance to pin their ears back in a longer line to gain situations. His reach and length alone enable him to keep good separation from defenders who are trying to get inside to his chest plate and move him at the point of attack.

With the pass rush snaps he has played, Armstead led the league in pass-rush productivity (PRP) per PFF in 2015 with a 12.3 PRP rate (meaning 11.2% of his snaps generated some kind of pressure like a sack, hit, or hurry).

In 2016 he led the NFL with an 11.2 PRP rate but only played in eight games. In 2017 his production fell off due to another season-ending injury. In 2018, he had his best season to that point, but he was tied for 67th in PRP throughout 16 games.

In 2019, he had a breakout year statistically and recorded 73 total pressures (13 sacks, ten hits, 50 hurries), but his total PRP rate was 8.0, tied for 36th in the league. And his breakout year coincides directly with the additions of rookie Nick Bosa and veteran defensive end Dee Ford.

Nonetheless, edge rusher is still overall a much more valuable position than interior defensive tackle, and Armstead has the versatility to pass rush from both the edge as well as the interior, where he recorded 13 sacks.

The tandem of Armstead, Buckner, Ford, and Bosa allowed the defense to create multiple 1-on-1s early in the season and late in the playoffs. With Ford in the rotation in weeks 1-11 (Ford played just three snaps in week 14, so it’s not counted here), the defense generated 34 sacks and a 12.6 PRP rate.

When Ford was missing, the defense recorded nine sacks through the final six weeks, but their PRP fell just 10.9. So while they could still generate pressure decently well, they could not generate enough to affect the passing game as they were unable to get the kind of match-ups they desired with.

Buckner replacements

There are many suitable replacements the 49ers could bring in during free agency to replace Buckner, as Niners Nation editor Kyle Posey highlights. Still, for now, the roster options are also equally suitable.

D.J. Jones

The former sixth-round pick in the 2017 draft has been a quietly good player since then, and the last season took steps toward cementing his future as the potential replacement for Buckner. He played in 13 games before a season-ending high ankle sprain injury in week 14 against the Saints and was a formidable defender in the middle of the defensive line.

In the passing game, he recorded nine pressures on 147 pass-rush snaps (two sacks and seven hurries) for a 6.1% pass-rush productivity. His strength alone, combined with a low center of gravity enables him to quickly penetrate into the backfield, as you can see on the sack on Russell Wilson. Against Carolina, he displays good speed to track down Kyle Allen for a seven-yard loss.

While I generally think run defense is less important in the NFL, Jones does his best work on base downs against opposing running games and as I said earlier if there is a case to be made for having solid run defense, its the ability of a defender on key plays to put an opposing offense behind the chains on 2nd and 3rd downs.

Kevin Givens

Kevin Givens was an undrafted free agent the 49ers signed after the 2019 NFL draft. He was a solid defender in the preseason in the middle of the defensive line. NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger, famous for his Baldy Breakdowns, has a really nice breakdown of Kevin Givens during the preseason that you can watch here.

Outlook

The 49ers move to sign Armstead to a long term deal was a smart move. I still think Buckner is the better player, but they were able to retain a player playing at a high level at a much more valuable position, defensive end, than the position Buckner plays. And they were able to come away with another first-round pick that they could use to target any number of positions or turn around and use one of those picks to obtain more draft capital.

Armstead also costs much less than Buckner’s long term. And the 49ers still have some really good talent on the interior with defensive tackle D.J. Jones, possibly Solomon Thomas, who plays his best snaps from the interior, and Kevin Givens. Overall, for a team that just played in the Super Bowl, coming away with two first-round picks is remarkable and keeps the window open longer for another run.