SANTA CLARA — DeForest Buckner greeted the media Monday afternoon in the Levi’s Stadium auditorium. He leaned into the podium and put passion into his answers.
The No. 7 overall pick in last year’s draft, Buckner is grasping the nuances of being a professional — and by many measurements, he’s heading in the direction of becoming the next NaVorro Bowman and Joe Staley type of pillar the 49ers will lean upon for years. The evidence was littered all throughout his press conference.
We’ll get to that part in a minute, but as of early April, hopes are rising for the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder. The 49ers may actually have to update his weight total on their official website. Buckner’s arms, as the kids say, were yoked. Buckner arrived back in town three weeks early, and head strength and conditioning coach Ray Wright has been kicking his ass in the weight room.
“He’s going to get our team right,” Buckner said. “I feel a lot stronger this year compared to last year. Hopefully I’m gaining a little bit of that grown man strength.”
A more imposing Buckner coupled with his newfangled leadership skills are very encouraging thoughts for 49ers fans. Buckner’s using his relationship with Seattle’s Michael Bennett to bring Ronald Blair, Eli Harold and Arik Armstead to Hawaii this July for workouts and film sessions. Buckner explained to the media how much better he’s gotten at watching film since he entered the NFL, changing some of his own habits and also picking up tendencies from opposing teams.
He also said he feels like he’s earned the right to bark at his teammates, when necessary.
“We have to set a standard and if a guy isn’t doing it right, we have to call him out on it,” Buckner said. “I’d like to think I got a little respect from last year. A lot of guys come to me and say, ‘That’s your guy. You should talk to him more.’ Just seeing the respect I gained from my teammates saying I should call out guys more. It’s a thing that I have to do.”
The respect thing from the locker room is absolutely true. Buckner is growing up quickly in a league that weeds out top 10 picks year after year. That type of growth will happen when you’re arguably the most consistent player on your defense as a rookie. Buckner flashed consistency as a pass rusher with six sacks in a flawed scheme repeatedly exposed by offensive coordinators.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh indicated to Buckner that he’ll mostly play the big defensive end (3-Tech) in this system, which is modeled after Seattle’s one-high safety scheme. It’s more of a one-gap, control defense, where Buckner will be able to attack a specific area on the offensive line at a higher rate.
“Now I’m not two-gapping, I’m not holding onto blocks, more avoiding them now,” Buckner explained. “I’m excited about that. Not having to hold off a 300-pound man for two seconds and shedding and all that stuff. So, it’s going to be more exciting.”
Obviously, Buckner’s production will heavily rely upon his teammates. Free agent acquisition Earl Mitchell is expected to plug the middle, Armstead will slide all over the place, and Saleh revealed Aaron Lynch will be lining up with his hand in the dirt at defensive end. Blair, Chris Jones and Quinton Dial will fight for time in the rotation. A majority of mock drafts are linking the 49ers to Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas and in my personal opinion, Alabama’s Jonathan Allen had the best tape of any player in the draft. A later round pick and an undrafted gem could emerge in training camp.
Can Buckner become a consistent 10-sack player in this defense? Why the hell not? Sophomore slumps can be a real thing in the NFL, but with greater attention paid to chasing quarterbacks, San Francisco’s coaching staff is openly trying to put Buckner in a better position to succeed.
For all the Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly bashing that’s gone on, the former power players in Santa Clara left the 49ers with a parting gift full of potential. You could count the bright spots on one hand last season. But without question, Buckner was one of them. And he’s ready to go from bright spot to building block — should the cards fall in his direction.
“Even during the year everybody knew it was unacceptable. Nobody wants to be mentioned as the 32nd team in the league,” Buckner said. “Everybody’s ready to kind of redeem themselves from last year.”