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In San Francisco, the NFL’s Next Great Defensive Force Emerges

In the shadow of a hyped offense, in a new scheme, and under the weight of Calais Campbell comparisons, 49ers lineman DeForest Buckner is ready to establish himself as a Defensive Player of the Year contender

With the Rams, 49ers, Chargers and Raiders all offering compelling storylines and the promise of the playoffs, 2018 is shaping up to be the most anticipated season ever for pro football in California. The MMQB’s Andy Benoit is diving into those storylines for our special offseason project: California Week. Check back regularly for more.

One of the most enjoyable discussions making its way through NFL circles last offseason was: How would new 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh use his defensive linemen? After the selection of Stanford’s Solomon Thomas third overall in the 2017 draft, Saleh had a nearly unheard of three first-round D-linemen under the age of 24: Arik Armstead (23), DeForest Buckner (23) and Thomas (21). But those first two—Armstead and Buckner—had been drafted to fill the previous regime’s 3-4 scheme. Saleh, who had worked for the Seahawks and, most recently, Jaguars, ran the Pete Carroll/Gus Bradley/Dan Quinn 4-3, single-high zone scheme.

One thing that made Saleh an appealing D-coordinator candidate was his willingness to diversify his scheme just enough to not be predictable. But that diversity would stem more from his safeties in coverage and linebackers on blitzes. For D-linemen, the task was consistently clear: penetrate gaps. That’s the hallmark of many 4-3 schemes, as opposed to a 3-4, where D-linemen are asked to clog multiple gaps. This in mind, the NFL was eager to see how Saleh would repurpose his talented defensive linemen.

“Coming in, we watched all the tape and were trying to find who would be the most disruptive player at the [defensive tackle] 3-technique position,” Saleh says. “The 3-technique is your premier inside guy. He can rush the passer, stop the run—he does everything. The importance of that 3-technique to us was first and foremost, especially when you’re dealing with all the different bodies that we had to take over from a 3-4 team.

“For us, the 3-technique was Buck. He’s a very physical, dominant human being. He just manhandles people.”

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After identifying Buckner, the focus shifted to who would align outside of him. (They call this position the Leo.) In Saleh’s scheme, that often means aligning on the weak side. There were a handful of role player defensive ends built to line up on the strong side. That left Armstead as the most natural selection to play the weak side. “He was the next most athletic player of the group, and he too is physical and long,” Saleh explains. “Not ideal for the system that we have, but very functional in terms of first and second down.”

These decisions were made before San Fran drafted Thomas, which is notable given how many people viewed Thomas as a true defensive end.

“I know there’s always a discussion of, What is Solomon?” Saleh says. “Well, it was very, very clear to us and it’s still very clear: In run situations, we would have him outside where he can set edges and have a lot of one-on-one run blocks. If he can line up over a tight end, that tight end has zero chance. But when it comes to rushing the passer, his speed and quickness and strength is definitely made for inside.” There was room for Thomas inside because San Fran’s passing down fronts, as in many schemes, almost always deploy two 3-techniques.

Though much of the evidence looks favorable, the jury is still out on Thomas. Same for Armstead, who played just six games in Saleh’s scheme before breaking his hand. As for Buckner…

“When you look at Buck,” says Saleh, “his physicality in the run game, his ability to win one-on-one in pass rush, he can play any style of football that you want. There’s a mindset that you must have when you’re playing there, and he definitely has that mindset.”

Buckner’s three sacks weren’t enough to draw national attention last season, but people in the building are quick to point out that his 19 QB hits led all interior defensive players. Given how much on-the-fly learning he did in 2017, the 6' 7", 300-pounder could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2018.

“My whole life I played in a 3-4,” says Buckner. “It was about defending two gaps all through college and even a little bit into high school. So [in 2016] it was easy for me as a rookie to come in, working in the same scheme and everything. Last year was an adjustment. But I got the hang of it and I like the 4-3 a lot better. I like being able to penetrate against the run and get vertical.” That penetration against the run so naturally converts to a pass rush that, as Buckner explains it, not even the fake handoffs of play-action slow down the D-line.

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While Buckner’s smooth transition to gap penetrator is commendable, it should be expected of any first-rounder in this day and age. Because as Paul Guenther, the defensive coordinator working across the Bay in Oakland, puts it, “the whole 3-4 vs. 4-3 thing gets way overblown. You’re in nickel 60% of the time anyway.” Most nickel fronts feature four down linemen.

Saleh concurs. “The game’s not played with two-backs anymore, so you hardly get a chance to actually see the 3-4 element of 3-4 teams,” he says. It’s mostly all one-gap concepts along the D-line nowadays.

What’s more, most of the teams labeled as a “3-4” also play one-gap rules, making them nearly the same as a 4-3. Wade Phillips’s Rams are the best example.

“That’s the hard thing,” says Buckner, when asked to categorize his division rival’s defense. They’re called a 3-4 but “they still play ‘under’ fronts.” An “under” front is when the 3-technique aligns on the weak side—like he often does in Saleh’s 4-3. “I feel like they’re still emphasizing penetration. It’s like they have a 3-4 scheme but instead of really reading and reacting, their D-linemen are getting more vertical.”

Phillips himself gladly elaborates.

“It’s just not a two-gap 3-4. It’s a 3-4 defense that plays one gap. We start out in an ‘under’ look sometimes. But it’s 3-4 so they don’t know which [outside linebacker] is coming from the outside. We’re gonna rush four but they don’t know if it’s Von Miller from the strong side or DeMarcus Ware from the weak side or whoever else.”

When Phillips first took over, some carped that a “3-4” didn’t fit superstar Aaron Donald. Donald, of course, went on to win Defensive Player of the Year in his first season under Phillips, carrying out the same 3-technique tasks he did over his first three seasons in the previous regime’s 4-3.

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If Donald hadn’t won Defensive Player of the Year, Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell probably would have. That’s a name Buckner heard, by his estimation, “a million” times leading up to the draft. Buckner has the 6' 8", 300-pound Campbell’s body structure and explosive strength. Campbell even acknowledged this the first time he came across Buckner. It was on a special teams play in Buckner’s second NFL game. One man was running onto the field, the other running off it. (Buckner can’t remember who was doing which.) Campbell said, “Hey, they keep saying you’re supposed to be the next me. Don’t prove them wrong.”

Campbell is another testament to the blurring of lines between a 4-3 and a 3-4. His Cardinals for many years were considered a 3-4 when coordinated by Todd Bowles and James Bettcher. But the Jaguars paid him $30 million guaranteed over four years to come play in their Saleh-style 4-3. Like in Arizona, Campbell has thrived at 3-technique, 1-technique (nose tackle) and 9-technique (defensive end).

Buckner does not yet have Campbell’s flexibility. He’s had some great snaps at 1-technique, but says “probably not” when asked if he’ll soon see significant snaps at 9-technique. But snaps on the edges seem inevitable if we’re to believe his answer to the next question:

If your career were a baseball game, and you reach your development at the bottom of the 9th inning, then where are you currently in that game?

“First inning,” he says quickly.

Come on now.

“Oh…O.K.” And here he stops and thinks. “Maybe the third inning.”

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