© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
When Chris Kiffin was hired as the 49ers pass rush specialist in February, he inherited a young, unproven unit with one budding centerpiece: DeForest Buckner.
Kiffin did not know how Buckner went about his work, but he quickly found out. Visiting the Santa Clara facilities, he encountered the star defensive tackle on a daily basis— eating breakfast, lifting weights, and working on technique— despite being a couple months removed from the 2017 season in which he asserted himself as one of the top interior defensive linemen in football.
“When I first got here, 99 percent of the roster wasn’t back that time of the year,” Kiffin said about Buckner. “He was in here every morning… So, I think at a young age, he is already the ultimate pro, which is really going to catapult him into doing big things.”
All signs point to Buckner exploding in 2018.
During his rookie year in 2016, he played the most snaps of any interior defensive lineman in the league. He posted six sacks in a 3-4 scheme. Last season, Buckner transitioned to a 4-3 defense under current defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. The new coaching staff lessened the defensive tackle’s massive workload, hoping a fresher Buckner meant a better Buckner.
It worked. The 6-foot-7, 300-pounder was a matchup nightmare, hitting opposing quarterbacks 19 times, the most of any interior defensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus. His 53 pressures were the fifth-most at his position.
While Buckner improved from Year 1 to Year 2, he produced only three sacks in 2017, three fewer than his 2016 total. The lack of edge pass rush allowed agile quarterbacks to escape the middle pressure by scampering to the outside, avoiding sacks.
Buckner has trained tirelessly this offseason to up that sack total, specifically working on lowering his leverage in order to ensure he finishes rushes with the quarterback on the ground. He wants to improve in the run game, too.
“There was a couple sacks I left out there actually, slipping off quarterbacks and stuff like that,” Buckner said last week.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness on the 49ers roster is the lack of game-changing edge rushers. 2017 leading-sacker Elvis Dumervil’s player option was not picked up this offseason. The 49ers opted to re-sign Cassius Marsh, pick up Arik Armstead’s fifth-year option, and sign former Charger Jeremiah Attaochu. Those players will join Eli Harold and Solomon Thomas, who looks like a promising youngster poised to build off a solid rookie year in 2017, to compose the 49ers edge rush unit.
None of them has more than 10 career sacks.
“Not every team has a Joey Bosa or Von Miller, where they can just take a complete game over,” Saleh said Wednesday. “You look at Buck, you look at Solomon— there is enough talent on our d-line. These guys are football players that, the difference between the top guy and the next guy is very little.”
Whenever 49ers coaches are questioned about the lack of pass rush, they usually respond by highlighting Buckner. They expect his lane-clogging, physically imposing presence to maximize the 49ers edge rushers best known for their speed.
“We have a guy inside in Buckner that’s, in my opinion, going to be elite,” Kiffin said. “Any time you have an elite player, you can build around that. That’s the first thing you have to do.”
As Buckner says: “One guy eats, everybody eats.”
If one common theme lies within the 49ers roster this offseason, it is the luxury of time. The roster underwent major turnover from Kyle Shanahan’s first year to his second. Many 49ers players, whether on offense or defense, were either thrust into prominent roles during their rookie years or after being traded late in the season. Now they have a full summer to learn the systems’ nuances.
For Buckner and Thomas, the two 49ers defensive linemen with consensus Pro Bowl potential, another offseason spent together bodes well for their success. Thomas’ maturation has been one of the positive breakthroughs of OTAs as he enters his second season.
“I think this year is going to be a great year for him to have a breakout season,” Buckner said about Thomas. “Even in the meeting room, he is a lot more vocal and everything. He interacts with everybody a lot more. Last year he was kind of shy and reserved, and you can see how he’s getting a lot more comfortable around us.”
Buckner, another top-10 pick, was in the same spot as Thomas one year ago. Buckner, only 24 years old, is one of the most experienced 49ers defensive linemen. His talent, tenure, and tenacious training have naturally molded him into the unit’s leader.
“I can see the guys respect me a little bit and look at me as one of the leaders,” Buckner said.
Kiffin reiterated this.
“I see the guys look up to him,” Kiffin said. “We don’t have a lot of older guys in our room. I don’t see him as the vocal guy as far as the whole defense goes. But that will come with time and his play doing the talking.”
An improved defense figures to help Buckner ascend into the upper echelon of defensive tackles in 2018. He was pegged as NFL Network’s No. 6 defensive tackle last month, younger than each of the five players ahead of him, and ranked higher than three-time first-team All-Pro Ndamukong Suh.
Earlier this offseason, Harold gave Buckner, who goes by ‘DeFo,’ a new moniker: ‘DPOY.’ The acronym stands for Defensive Player of the Year, representative of the sky-high expectations, both from the outside and within, surrounding Buckner entering his third NFL season.
Brad Almquist is KNBR’s 49ers beat writer. Follow Brad on Twitter @bquist13.