Breaking down 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner’s major impact on the field

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 10: Tom Savage #3 of the Houston Texans avoids a tackle by DeForest Buckner #99 of the San Francisco 49ers in the first quarter at NRG Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 10: Tom Savage #3 of the Houston Texans avoids a tackle by DeForest Buckner #99 of the San Francisco 49ers in the first quarter at NRG Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Since entering the league in 2016, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner has become an integral piece of the San Francisco 49ers. Niner Noise discusses Buckner’s impact to the team so far and his potential in the future.

The San Francisco 49ersDeForest Buckner was one of the best defensive linemen heading into the 2016 NFL Draft. Coming out of Oregon, Buckner impressed many scouts and NFL teams with his unique combination of size, speed and strength.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock even compared Buckner to Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell for his power and length. Along with his athleticism, Buckner’s physical attributes led the 49ers to draft the 6-foot-7, 291-pound standout seventh overall in 2016.

During his rookie season, Buckner made an immediate impact to San Francisco’s defense. Despite the team’s poor outing in 2016, he still recorded six sacks and 73 total tackles.

Although his numbers decreased the following year, Buckner had to adjust to defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3, Cover 3 defense. Buckner had to acclimate himself to a new system, lining up alongside nose tackle Earl Mitchell and defensive ends Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead.

In 2017, Buckner finished the season with three sacks, 61 tackles and even added five pass deflections.

DeForest Buckner Defense & Fumbles Table

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With the amount of success he has accomplished so far in two years, Buckner’s future is surely looking bright. As one of the most impactful players on the roster since his arrival, there are several reasons why Buckner could be a Niner for a long time.

Major improvements under Robert Saleh’s defense

Buckner’s statistics dropped after his rookie year partially because he had to study an entirely new defensive playbook. A new regime took over the team in 2017 and thus, many changes took place.

From a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, Buckner had to adapt to a completely new system. Though Buckner still remained at the defensive tackle despite the transition.

With better stability under general manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan and Saleh as the defensive coordinator, Buckner’s game should only continue to improve as the years go by. Buckner will further grasp Saleh’s defense during the 2018 offseason, which should make him a more formidable force in the middle.

Pro Football Focus gave Buckner an overall grade of 90.4 while playing under Saleh’s defense in 2017. Buckner ranked sixth highest among all NFL defensive linemen.

Additionally, Buckner had the top grade among all interior defenders through the first four weeks of the 2017 regular season:

Capability, durability and versatility

During his rookie season, Buckner took the most snaps among all NFL interior defenders with 1,007. Buckner played 90 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps that year, even though he was still a rookie.

Saleh called Buckner’s 2016 snap total “criminal”, and therefore only had him on the field for 863 snaps in 2017. With these high numbers, Buckner has proven he is capable of handling a heavy workload while consistently applying pressure to the opposing quarterback and stopping the run.

Buckner has also only missed one game in his first two years, showing he is durable throughout the course of a season.

Lastly, despite primarily playing the 3-technique, Buckner can both rush the passer and stuff the run. Thus, in certain situations, Saleh can plug him in as a nose tackle or even a defensive end.

However, Buckner is still best suited at defensive tackle as he has found the most success in that position.

For instance, check out his disruptive presence against Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in Week 16 of the 2017 season:

Pro Bowl and All-Pro potential

Buckner’s potential in the NFL has not gone unnoticed. Players and coaches have often praised Buckner and his remarkable productivity on the field.

Shanahan joined KNBR’s Murph & Mac Show and said this about Buckner:

"He goes hard every single play. He’s really into it both mentally and physically. I know the game’s important to him and performing at a high level is important to him and he’s a guy we’ve been able to count on week in, week out, so far."

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Lynch also went on KNBR to talk about Buckner’s work ethic:

"He’s been really playing at a high level and I think he’s on the verge. I’ve played with guys that have played at Hall of Fame levels – Warren Sapp comes to mind – that were just dominant. DeFo’s played really well. I think he can be dominant and I’m looking forward to him getting even better."

Even Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett recognizes Buckner’s game. Bennett once told KHON:

"I think DeForest will eventually be a defensive player of the year. I think he has the talent to be able to do that. I keep telling him there’s nobody like him. He’s not normal. His physique, his speed, it’s not normal so when you’re not normal you can do not normal things and winning the defensive MVP is not normal for most people."

Since his first game in the NFL, Buckner has rapidly become one of the league’s elite interior defenders. Although he has not yet entered the Pro Bowl or the All-Pro team, Buckner certainly possesses the talents to eventually make the cut.

As Bennett stated, Buckner could even receive Defensive Player of the Year honors. If he continues to improve his game and cause trouble for opposing offenses, Buckner may very well achieve that award one day.

Next: 49ers should keep defensive back Jimmie Ward for 2018 season

49ers fans may be wondering why the front office did not spend more money in free agency this year. Lynch and company are probably planning the inevitable: extending Buckner’s contract and paying him the large amount of money he rightfully deserves.