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Ranking most important 49ers in 2018: No. 2 DeForest Buckner

Happy Training Camp Week, 49ers fans. We are just two days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR has counted down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied with coach bios for each day preceding camp.

Let’s highlight defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, our second-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.


Buckner is the foundation upon which the 49ers defensive line is built. Most of the line is comprised of young, unproven players looking for the breakout season that has eluded their careers thus far. Buckner, though only 24 years old, is a budding star whose career trajectory is trending upwards.

The 49ers drafted him in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Oregon. In his rookie year, he logged the most snaps of any interior defensive lineman in the league. He collected 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.

Buckner ranked as NFL Network’s No. 6 overall defensive tackle released in May. He is younger than any of the five players listed ahead of him, and he was ranked ahead of three-time first-team All-Pro Ndamukong Suh.

The 49ers revamped their pass rush this offseason by signing Jeremiah Attaochu and Cassius Marsh, two speedy edge rushers that will benefit from the gravitational pull Buckner attracts up the middle. Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas, and Eli Harold round out the pass rush unit. None of them has more than 10 career sacks. That includes Buckner, who has nine sacks in two career seasons. He had just three of the team’s 30 last year.

Whenever 49ers coaches are questioned about the lack of pass rush, they usually respond by highlighting Buckner.

“We have a guy inside in Buckner that’s, in my opinion, going to be elite,” pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin said. “Any time you have an elite player, you can build around that. That’s the first thing you have to do.”

“Not every team has a Joey Bosa or Von Miller, where they can just take a complete game over,” Saleh said. “You look at Buck, you look at Solomon— there is enough talent on our d-line.”

After Kiffin was hired in February, he quickly saw Buckner’s work ethic at the Santa Clara facilities. The Oregon product has worked this offseason on lowering his leverage to ensure quarterbacks end up on the ground more regularly. He wants to improve in the run game, too.

“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.”

COACH SPOTLIGHT: Robert Saleh, defensive coordinator

Saleh enters his second season as the 49ers defensive coordinator. He was the only major coordinator appointed in Shanahan’s opening round of hires last offseason, with the 49ers head coach also assuming the offensive coordinator title.

Saleh inherited a defense constructed for a 3-4 scheme. He adopted the 4-3 scheme with so-called 3-4 personnel under Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who popularized the defense that appears among some of the NFL’s top defenses.

The 49ers spent the offseason revitalizing their defense. The secondary looks completely different than it did at this time a year ago. The linebacking corps is among the deepest position groups on the roster. And the defensive line is younger.

With a full offseason to implement his scheme, and a roster better fit for it, Saleh enters Year No. 2 with a much more optimistic defensive outlook.

“What you should see is a faster and more violent product,” Saleh said at May’s State of the Franchise event.

Before he came to the 49ers, Saleh served as the Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach from 2014 to 2016. Gus Bradley, a Carroll disciple, employed a similar 4-3 scheme there. In 2015 and 2016, the Jaguars ranked fifth and sixth in rush-per-attempt average. Paul Posluzny (132 tackles), Johnathan Cyprien (128 tackles), and Telvin Smith (118 tackles) all finished in the top-17 in tackles in 2016, Saleh’s final year with Jacksonville.

Saleh spent the previous three years as a defensive quality control coach with the Seahawks. The Seahawks were the No. 1 scoring defense in 2012 and 2013, the year they won their first Super Bowl championship. He worked with Malcolm Smith and Richard Sherman, now key members of the 49ers defense.

Prior to Seattle, Saleh rose through the ranks of the Houston Texans system, developing from an intern, to a defensive assistant, and finishing as an assistant linebackers coach. He worked alongside Shanahan for all three of his years in Houston.

More than a decade later, the two are tasked with overhauling a moribund 49ers franchise they inherited into one of the most exciting teams entering 2018.

This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the rankings below.

No. 14: Kyle Juszczyk

No. 13: Solomon Thomas

No. 12: Adrian Colbert

No. 11: Pierre Garcon

No. 10: Weston Richburg

No. 9: Jerick McKinnon

No. 8: Mike McGlinchey

No. 7: Ahkello Witherspoon

No. 6: Arik Armstead

No. 5: Reuben Foster

No. 4: Richard Sherman

No. 3: Joe Staley


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