49ers to face ‘bittersweet’ reunion with Colts’ DeForest Buckner

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images) /

The 49ers made the difficult and still-controversial decision to part ways with Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, whom they’ll play in Week 7.

San Francisco 49ers fans probably grimace when recalling the news breaking in early spring of 2020 that Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was being traded off to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round NFL Draft pick.

As the glossed-over story goes, the Niners wanted to keep his former Oregon teammate, defensive tackle Arik Armstead, but couldn’t afford Buckner. As trade talks materialized, Armstead signed a new deal worth five years and $85 million, whereas Buckner finally cashed in on his own four-year, $84 million post-trade contract.

General manager John Lynch later told reporters how trading Buckner was one of the toughest decisions he had ever made at his position, sending away San Francisco’s high-profile first-round pick from the 2016 NFL Draft, who swiftly became the 49ers’ best defensive player and a clear locker-room leader.

And while the Niners used that pick from the Buckner trade to acquire defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw later that spring, the storyline surrounding whether or not San Francisco would have been better off keeping Buckner, letting Armstead walk and passing on Kinlaw remains a hot topic.

Probably for good reasons, too.

Nevertheless, that move is made. Buckner is thriving with the Colts, coming off a first-team All-Pro 2020 campaign in which he logged 9.5 sacks and already has two more this season within an Indianapolis defense ranked 11th in the league in scoring.

Now, Buckner and the 2-4 Colts visit the 49ers for a prime-time Sunday Night Football matchup in Week 7.

49ers prepared for ‘bittersweet’ reunion with DeForest Buckner

It’s always risky when a locker-room favorite is traded away, and one could argue the Niners are still experiencing Buckner’s departure today.

Team captain Jimmie Ward said as much during a Monday press conference, as transcribed by the San Jose Mercury News‘ Cam Inman:

"You know what DeFo brought to this team. He was the heart and soul when he was here. I wasn’t happy about it, but I understand the business side. I’m pretty sure you all knew something was going to happen, just like I did. Just didn’t know what was going to happen.It was bittersweet. We ended up getting (Javon) Kinlaw and we ended up getting Brandon Aiyuk [in the same round of the draft]. But we lost a leader – especially a leader in defense and on this team. He’s still my brother and I still love him."

It’s a fair argument to wonder if San Francisco’s defense regressed in the wake of Buckner’s departure. In 2019, a Buckner-led defense was tied for best in the NFL by allowing only 4.7 yards per play, whereas the following year, the 49ers gave up 5.0 yards per play, fourth best and despite the swarm of injuries suffered that season.

So far in 2021, the Niners are tied for eighth best at 5.3 yards per play, although Niners Nation’s Akash Anavarathan added some additional insight here:

And, yes, Armstead has been awfully good, too, this season even if the standard stats aren’t revealing it.

Related Story: Arik Armstead is a case study why stats don’t tell the whole story

Still, what can’t be measured is the impact Buckner had in the locker room as a leader and team captain. It’s also fair to assess Kinlaw’s maturation and development have come along slowly, and he’s nowhere near the kind of player Buckner was, even at his earliest of stages.

Would San Francisco be better off with Buckner still in the fray? Probably. But the business of football got in the way, and the 49ers nevertheless made the decision they felt they had to make at the time.

Now, they’ll look to embrace him on the opposite side of the field this Sunday.

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