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Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports


Film From the Fieldhouse: The Loss of DeForest Buckner and the Future for the 49ers’ Defensive Line

Bret Rumbeck
Mar 17, 2020 at 7:00 AM


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Between 2014 and 2018, the San Francisco 49ers achieved a dismal win-loss record of 25-55. The only reward from the dark stretch of football were high draft picks to try and rebuild a broken franchise.

During that time, the team was able to build up a formidable defensive line through the NFL Draft.

The 49ers selected a defensive lineman in three straight drafts, starting with Arik Armstead in 2015.

It took some time, along with adding two menacing defensive ends, for the world to witness the full potential of the 49ers' defensive line.

The NFL, unfortunately, is not a fantasy world where the roaring success and triumphs last for decades.

No sir. The average player lasts for just over three seasons, and great players will waste no time inking large contracts. It's a brutal fact of a meat-grinding professional sport.

This offseason, the 49ers were put in an undeniable dilemma and one the team had not faced in years: a salary cap battle and severe questions on which players to keep.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the 49ers sent defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the Colts' first-round pick in the 2020 draft. Buckner will make $21 million per year, putting him right behind the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald.


Hours before, the 49ers announced that Armstead would remain in the Bay Area for the next five years. Armstead's new contract guarantees him $48.5 million, and he can pocket nearly $85 million.

It's sad to watch the 49ers' defensive line break apart, but the time is now for two 49ers to prepare for a more substantial role this coming season.

D.J. Jones


Defensive tackle D.J. Jones was a sixth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Since then, he's become an integral role for the 49ers and improved his pass rush, run defense, and overall play each year.

Jones was having one of his best games as a professional in Week 14 last year before suffering a high-ankle sprain. The 49ers were forced to place Jones on the injured reserve list on December 14, 2019. No more did the 49ers miss Jones' presence than during the Super Bowl loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Buckner's departure immediately elevates Jones' importance to the 49ers, both to help crush the run and clog up the interior line on inside stunts.

Week 2 – 1st Quarter: 1st and 10 at the CIN 12 (14:54)

The 49ers' first defense set the tone on the opening play of the Week 2 contest against the Cincinnati Bengals.


After breaking the huddle, the 49ers' defensive line set up in an 'over' front with Jones lined up in a 2i position. Jones shot to the opposite A-gap, which allowed the faster Buckner to swoop behind and shoot the opposite A-gap.


Jones was not and still will not be the fastest defensive lineman. But what he lacks in speed, he makes up for in strength. He overpowered Bengals center Trey Hopkins and found himself as one of four 49ers ready to take down quarterback Andy Dalton.

Even if opposing offensive linemen get tricky and double team both Armstead and Jones, that leaves Ford and Bosa one-on-one against the tackles.

Week 1 – 1st Quarter: 1st and 10 at the TB 27 (3:12)

While not a play that included Jones, here was what happened with Tampa Bay decided to 'duo' Armstead and Buckner, while Ford had to deal with a 'trey' block from the Y and U receivers.



Bosa did not end up with a sack, but he did force quarterback Jameis Winston to scramble in the pocket to find an open receiver.

Interior double teams work against teams with zero speed on the edges. Even with Buckner gone, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh can still rely on a four-man rush knowing that any double-team block will leave one of the teeth in the defensive cogwheel isolated and ready to make a play.

Solomon Thomas


Veteran defensive tackle Solomon Thomas needs 2020 to be his breakout season. Though that statement has been factual for two seasons, and well before the Twitter whispers of Buckner's trade began to kill electrons on screens across the nation.

Thomas, despite moments of solid play, has done little to prove worthy of a high draft choice. Last season, he played 162 fewer snaps than he did in 2018 and declined in overall play.

In 2019, Thomas made three quarterback sacks, two more than in 2018, but he had fewer tackles, quarterback hurries, and run stops. He did play 226 snaps as a defensive tackle, but that was an illusion. Saleh still placed Thomas at an edge position 230 times last year.

Week 6 - 2nd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the SF 46 (6:37)

Here's one reason why Thomas should not be an edge defender.


On the Rams' first drive, Jones was getting shoved out of position on nearly every run play. Saleh replaced Jones with Thomas, which brought a halt to the Rams' ground attack.


For reasons unknown, Saleh then shifted Thomas back to the edge for the 49ers' fourth defensive series. On the first play, Rams' running back Darrell Henderson gained 22 yards around the left edge.

Thomas continues to struggle with linemen blocking down. The assessment was noted quite clearly in his scouting report: "can get washed out of plays by strong down blocks..."

Unfortunately, it's still a weakness in his game, no matter if he's inside or playing an edge position.

Shortly after this series, Saleh moved Thomas back inside.

Week 6 - 3rd Quarter: 1st and 10 at the LAR 15 (4:50)


Once back in his natural position, Thomas sacked Goff for an eight-yard loss.


His speed, combined with his overall strength, was too much for Rams' center Brian Allen.

Moments like this continue to give me hope for Thomas, but his unreliable play still keeps me wondering if his star won't rise much further above the horizon.

Yesterday's trade was one of the few results that yield wins for all involved. Buckner deserved to sign a cash-laden contract, and the 49ers could not make that happen. He's headed to an emerging Colts team with the possibility of making the playoffs next season.

The 49ers needed to add draft capital to the board, and gaining the 13th overall selection allows general manager John Lynch to continue building the roster with young talent.

All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless noted.
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


3 Comments

  • Hack
    Analysis is spot-on. Buckner has been repeatedly overworked, despite Saleh saying it would be “criminal” to do so. Buck is just that damn good. Rotating Jones and Thomas will help spread playing time around and I have a feeling Street will find spots to use that massive strength. We won’t be as good On the DLine but the drop off will not be precipitate. It was obvious that Sherm was hurting at the end of the year. Other teams are going to be testing his speed and the official’s willIngness to flag him. We desperately need to upgrade CB2 but as that happens there will be even more pressure on Sherm. Replacing Buckner adequately is key to propping up the crisis at CB. That’s where the Super Bowl dream died
    Mar 23, 2020 at 7:16 AM
    0
  • PJNiner
    Anyone who thinks Lynch is unwise isn’t taking into account that he successfully orchestrated one of the greatest turn arounds in NFL history. Take into account that he inherited a roster completely depleted of talent due to years of poor Trent Baalke drafts & what he’s accomplished is really something miraculous. Did I want to see Buckner go? Absolutely not, but trading Armstead for a 3rd round pick and having to pay Buckner millions more when we are already against the cap wasn’t going to help us. We would’ve lost Ward and had to play a rookie at arguably the most important position in the secondary. We also would not have the chance to draft a #1 WR which we’ve desperately needed for years now. Sanders was a #2 WR and an aging one at that. He definitely didn’t have the speed or size to strike fear into opposing D’s. I trust in Shanalynch to keep this thing going. Let’s see how we look after the 1st month and reserve judgement! Go Niners!!!
    Mar 22, 2020 at 10:57 AM
    1
  • 49erfan23
    Dumb move by trading Buckner, it just don't make sense to trade the cornerstone of your defense????
    Mar 18, 2020 at 10:12 AM
    0


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