Arik Armstead must justify 49ers trade of DeForest Buckner

The 49ers invested in Arik Armstead before trading DeForest Buckner, and it’s the former’s job to justify the move.

If San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Arik Armstead plays like he did in 2019, the Niners’ blockbuster decision to trade away Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts will be a worthy one.

Ultimately, it came down to money. Buckner was asking for a contract in the range of what Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was getting, and Buckner received it after the deal: a multiyear contract worth $21 million annually.

San Francisco could have paid that kind of cash, yet that would have meant letting its 2015 first-round NFL Draft pick, Armstead, walk in free agency.

Instead, the 49ers re-signed Arik Armstead to a five-year, $85 million deal worth $17 million annually, which was the subject of some debate on the Niner Noise Podcast just after news broke.

It’s a risk.

Armstead enjoyed a career-best year in 2019, leading the 49ers defense with 10 sacks and a career-high 54 tackles. There’s little doubt San Francisco’s additions to the defensive line, including edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, made Armstead’s life considerably easier. Before last season, Armstead never reached more than three sacks in a single season.

And with Buckner gone, Armstead has some bigger shoes to fill.

On the positive side, Armstead feels as if 2019 was a transitional year and there are bigger things ahead of him, as told to NBC Sports Bay Area’s Scott Bair:

I got better in every facet, though I think there’s plenty to improve upon. I want to play faster. I want to work on my get off, to continue to work my technique and honing my skills. I think you can get better and better every year. There are some things I want to improve on, but I got a lot better. I feel like I’m hitting my stride. In my mind, I’m just getting started.

Buckner’s absence created a number of different situations for Armstead and the rest of the Niners defense. For starters, it prompted the team to select South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw with the No. 14 overall pick in this year’s draft.

Kinlaw will be expected to contribute right away, although it wouldn’t be shocking to see the 49ers lessen the pressure on him.

As such, Armstead could see an uptick on snaps played on the inside of the formation, perhaps moving outside on more run-defense formations. Last year, Armstead was primarily used as an edge rusher, even on base downs.

San Francisco also isn’t expecting to replace Buckner solely with one player, which lends credence to the idea Kinlaw will be a rotational piece early, even if he gets a good amount of snaps his rookie season.

Armstead, meanwhile, should expect to see a lot of the field in 2020.

While there’s always a risk to be had in cases like these, the 49ers clearly believe Arik Armstead has the tools to seize this kind of opportunity and thrive within it.

Otherwise, they wouldn’t have rewarded him with the lucrative contract he received during the offseason.