The inaugural day of free agency saw some blockbuster deals go down. One of the biggest included the San Francisco 49ers trading star defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the Colts’ 2020 first-round draft pick (13).
So long, DeFo
49er GM John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan have clearly opted to make the wise decision and go with their head, rather than their heart. A manoeuvre that good teams often do to stay successful, i.e. Bill Belichick in New England. Despite what emotional implications there were, the deal was a necessary business decision.
Buckner was set to earn a colossal $21 million per year on a five-year contract, which would have made Buckner the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history. While SF are in a Super Bowl window, paydays for key players at positions of need are just around the corner.
George Kittle is soon to become the highest-paid TE in football, Nick Bosa won’t be on a rookie contract and Dee Ford is in the middle of an expensive 5 year, $85 million contract. Emmanuel Sanders‘ future is uncertain and he won’t come on the cheap. On top of this, the Niners had the question of whether or not to franchise tag DE Arik Armstead or offer him a long-term deal.
The Buckner trade does leave a bittersweet sentiment among Niner fans. Buckner was drafted 8th overall in 2016 out of Oregan. The former Oregan Duck instantly showed flashes of greatness in his rookie year, despite playing on a Chip Kelly led Niners team that finished 2-14. Buckner would go on to register 28.5 sacks over four seasons with the Niners, the most in one season being 12 total sacks in 2018 from the interior of the defensive line.
Other than his play on the field, Buckner proved himself to be a real leader for the 49ers and an integral part of the fantastic locker room culture that Lynch and Shanahan have managed to build over the last three years. Putting your body on the line and often being the lone bright spot on a defensive line that was otherwise an embarrassment until 2019 is something the fans always appreciate, which is why Buckner is held in such high regard by the Bay Area and why it’s so hard to see him go.
But that’s business. So long, DeFo.
Opting for Armstead
John Lynch opted for the latter. In hindsight, the writing was on the wall for Buckner after San Francisco opted to sign Arik Armstead to a 5 year, $48.5 million guaranteed contract, with incentives that can rise to a total of $85 million, rather than giving him the franchise tag.
Armstead, who had been labelled a bust until his stand out 2019 season, registered a total of 10 sacks, 18 QB hits and, per PFF, 62 QB pressures. Armstead’s level of play in 2019 even constituted ranking him the best player on a defensive line that featured DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
In a statement from John Lynch, the 49ers GM explained, ‘Arik’s physical tools and versatility have allowed him to be highly productive in our style of defence, and we look forward to watching him take his game to an even higher level as he grows within our scheme.’
Lynch’s emphasis on style of play and scheme here goes halfway as to explaining why the 49ers chose Armstead over Buckner. Other than the cheaper contract, Armstead’s versatility to be played on both the inside and outside of the defensive line is valued higher than Buckner’s ability as a DT.
Armstead, like Buckner, has the length to combat the run game from inside, as well as rushing the passer from that position, but also is capable of using his explosiveness when lining up outside and becoming a pure pass rusher.
While the 49ers chose head over heart in this situation and should benefit from it, the option to franchise tag Armstead, keep Buckner for one more year and run it back with the fiercest front 7 in football was certainly an option.
Buckner’s former back up/interior partner D.J. Jones showed flashes of quality during the 2019 season. Tormenting Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Night Football. But it is uncertain whether or not Jones can consistently perform as a valued starter in the NFL.
The 49ers books are now $21 million lighter with an added first-round pick. Whether or not the Niners opt to keep the 13th overall pick in a draft where they don’t have a pick from rounds 2-5, is uncertain.
Hopefully, Lynch and Shanahan are vindicated by this tough decision and the culture in the locker room doesn’t suffer too much. But for right now, Lynch chose head over heart and reminded fans that at the end of the day, the game is all business.