How DeForest Buckner's Absence will Impact the 49ers Defense

Grant Cohn

The 49ers will have a great defense next season, but it won’t be as great as last season.

DeForest Buckner’s loss will hurt the 49ers’ run defense and their pass rush, which in turn will hurt their pass coverage. Just the way it is. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the remaining leaders on the 49ers defense: Fred Warner, D.J. Jones, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead.

Here’s what those four have said about Buckner since the 49ers traded him to the Colts:

Warner: “He was everything you would want in a teammate and a player. He did everything right. And so he led by example every day. He’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen in practice, and that showed up on game day, obviously, as everyone has seen throughout his career. So we’ll miss him a lot. There are some big shoes to fill. We drafted Javon Kinlaw in the first round to try to ease that transition, but it’s going to be tough without Buckner.”

Jones: “Buck was just an all-around leader, as far as showing by example. He was always on time. Buck was THE guy. If you want to know how to do something right, watch Buck. But we have enough leaders in the room like Arik Armstead, even a young Nick Bosa, Dee Ford -- guys that can step up and fill that role.”

Bosa “Buckner definitely was one of my best friends on the team. Seeing him go is obviously bittersweet, but he has a pretty good contract and he deserves it. Just losing him as a leader, we’re going to have to really figure out how to step up and fill that void, because he was the third-down, D-line play caller. He was the hype/speech guy. He was everything. And I think he played with the best effort on the D-line, which really shows on tape when you see somebody that big sprinting to the ball every play and making those tackles downfield. And obviously his pass-rush ability. We’re going to have to step up. We have Javon coming in, and I’m sure he’ll be a huge help, but we’re all going to have to step it up.”

Armstead: “I figured there would be a way that we’d be able to continue playing together, but things happened how they happened. Losing Defo, he’s an irreplaceable player, a leader, a staple in the organization. There definitely is going to be a void there that not just one person is going to be able to fill. It’s going to be a team effort, especially our unit and our defensive line. We’re all going to have to pick it up to fill that void. I think we’re up for it. I think we have a great group of guys, and we have a great team. I don’t feel like we were reliant on just three guys throughout the year when we needed a play or we needed leadership. It was a group effort. Guys at their own times stepped up and made big plays in the entirety of the roster. I think we’re built the right way to adjust to something like that. Moving forward, I expect me and a whole host of my teammates to step up in leadership ways on the field, making plays and filling that void.”

Here are my big takeaways from what those four said:

1. DeForest Buckner was THE man on defense.

That’s what Jones said. And he didn’t necessarily mean Buckner was the best player, although he was. Jones meant Buckner set the standard for everyone else. Showed them how to work during meetings, how to talk to the media, how to practice and how hard to play every snap in the NFL.

Joe Staley was the standard-setter on offense before he retired. And Justin Smith was the standard-setter on defense before Buckner. The 49ers don’t currently have anyone who leads by example as well as Buckner did.

2. The 49ers must replace Buckner’s leadership and work ethic.

Bosa described two specific ways Buckner led the defense -- he called the plays for the defensive line on third downs, and he sprinted to the ball carrier every play.

A pass-rusher’s primary job is to hit the quarterback, but that’s not the only job. The play doesn’t end when the quarterback throws the ball. The defensive lineman still should chase the ball. Buckner always did. Who will replace Buckner’s hustle?

It has to be Arik Armstead. He’s the veteran on the defensive line now. He’s the guy making $17 million per season. And he’s the reason Buckner is gone. Buckner is on the Colts so the 49ers could keep Armstead and a few other players. Armstead knows it. Buckner knows it. The whole team knows it.

Armstead needs to step up and become more than just a talented player. He needs to be a consistent leader and hard worker every day, because that’s who Buckner was.

3. Armstead understands what he needs to do.

He acknowledged Buckner was a franchise staple. Armstead isn’t one yet. He has had just one dominant season. He knows he needs to improve. But he made a great point -- everyone needs to improve, not just Armstead.

The defining characteristic of the 49ers’ defense last season was its unpredictability. Any of the 11 players on the field could make the big play. It wasn’t just Buckner. That’s true.

But the biggest reason anyone could be a threat on the 49ers defense last season was Buckner. He called the third-down defensive-line plays. Meaning he willingly sacrificed himself and made himself a decoy.

How? On, say, third and five, instead of putting himself in a pass-rushing position -- three-technique between the guard and the tackle where there’s space -- Buckner often put himself at nose tackle, right in the middle of the line. Which means he wouldn’t get the sack most of the time, but he would draw so much attention that someone else would get it. Buckner sacrificed himself. 

Who will do that next season? And who will be the guy who hustles down the field every play?

Has to be Armstead.

Is he ready? Can he do it?

Comments (2)
No. 1-2
Carolina Knothole
Carolina Knothole

The leadership will have to change,as we all know. Who takes it by the horns or will it be shared ? I prefer it if Armstead takes that role on early. The young kid, Kinlaw, will be a lot of fun to watch too, and might surprise a few folks. I've had the pleasure of watching him up close the last couple of years, and he should fit in well with his demeanor as a player and teammate. Go Niners !

Mitchell Alan
Mitchell Alan

All four of those guys put together spontaneous, eloquent and accurate assessments of their beloved old teammate.