How 49ers D-line adjusts in 2020 without DeForest Buckner

Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

Now that the San Francisco 49ers have shipped out defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, they’ll be looking to get his production from somewhere. Let’s take a look at how the defensive line will adjust heading into the 2020 season.

The San Francisco 49ers‘ trade of defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts has been discussed a great deal since it happened, but there seems little doubt both teams benefited in different ways.

No matter how you look at it, though, one thing is definitely true: it’s time to move past the argument of whether it was a good or bad trade and instead dive into what the Niners will do now that it’s done.

Part of that revolves around what general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will do with the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, which the Colts gave in exchange for Buckner. But the other element is how will the 49ers defensive line adjust and attempt to make up Buckner’s production in 2020.

One thing is most definitely true: no one player is going to match what Buckner produced during his time with San Francisco.

The former Oregon Duck played in 63 out of a possible 64 games as a Niner, not to mention three playoff games in 2019. He amassed 263 total tackles, including 38 for loss, 28.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, 11 passes defended and 74 quarterback hits in four seasons.

Those are massive numbers, and, as NBC Sports Bay Area 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco suggested in a recent article, the expectation cannot be on one person to meet those numbers. So it’s going to be a sort of defensive-tackle-by-committee situation to even attempt to get close to what Buckner provided for the defense.

One such player will be newly re-signed defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who is coming off a career year in 2019 and will look to build upon that production in 2020 and beyond.

Armstead more than doubled his career sack output (nine from 2015-2018, 10 in 2019), and played an entire season for just the third time in five seasons. Armstead also created 73 total pressures in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus, after totaling 114 pressures in the four seasons leading up to last year.

Exactly where Armstead will line up on the field in 2020 will be very interesting, as he featured as both an edge player on base downs and an interior rusher on passing downs. Losing Buckner may see Armstead spend more time on the interior, but I don’t expect them to completely change Armstead’s role in 2020.

The committee in question will also be made up of other players who seem to be better as rotational pieces rather than full-time starters.

The first of those players is defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, who has yet to live up to his billing as the former No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. In what might be his final season with San Francisco, Thomas should have an opportunity to be a full-time interior player in Buckner’s absence, which is the place on the defensive line where he had the most success.

Third on the list of players who can step in is defensive lineman Ronald Blair, whom the 49ers re-signed this week to a one-year deal. Blair, coming off an ACL injury he suffered while sacking Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the 49ers’ loss to Seattle in November, is expected to be ready for the 2020 season.

Blair has shown himself to have a capable motor and, like Armstead, can slide to various positions along the defensive line. The former racked up 13.5 sacks in 47 games since coming to the NFL from Appalachian State in 2016, a solid output considering he featured on 27, 12, 50 and 19 percent of the team’s defensive snaps during his four seasons, respectively.

The last major contributor who can hope to fill some of the void left by Buckner is nose tackle D.J. Jones, who was having a solid season before also succumbing to IR with an ankle injury late in the year.

Jones started all 11 of the games he played in last year, where he had two sacks, one forced fumble and 23 total tackles. While his major contribution will be in being a run defender on base downs, he shows unusual quickness for a man his size and may be able to add onto his sack total with increased snap numbers.

From there, the 49ers will be looking to maintain one key element of their 2019 defensive line, even without Buckner: massive depth.

Obviously, edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford will contribute heavily to the overall success of the defensive line, but players like defensive tackles Kentavius Street, Jullian Taylor and Kevin Givens, along with newly signed defensive end Kerry Hyder, could also be in the mix to contribute in 2020.

Another interesting player is the former University of Tennessee and Winnipeg Blue Bomber of the CFL, pass-rusher Jonathan Kongbo, who certainly has the physical tools to be part of the team.

Let’s be clear: losing Buckner is going to be a big blow for the 49ers defense next season, and there is absolutely no way any single player is going to be able to get anywhere near his output or consistency.

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But if the 49ers can find a way to manufacture his numbers using multiple players, they should continue to field a solid defense as they head into the 2020 season.