Nearly 600 days have passed since the 49ers made the jaw-dropping decision to trade their defensive line lynchpin and locker room anchor, DeForest Buckner, to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Even now, it feels surreal to see him in Colts colors. There is no shortage of fans who feel a singe of emotional pain watching him swim and club over his way through the middle of offensive lines.
Buckner was the guy. He was explicitly and implicitly what the 49ers wanted all of their players to be; ruthlessly effective, physical, an uplifting, confidence-inspiring teammate, active in the community, and enlightening but not too enlightening to media.
General manager John Lynch called trading Buckner the “toughest thing” he’s ever had to do in his role.
“We spend a lot of time talking about what’s a 49er to us, and DeForest Buckner embodied that in every way both on and off the field,” Lynch said following the trade.
Buckner spoke to local 49ers media on Wednesday morning, and while he expressed contentment with his current situation, growth during his time in Indianapolis and joy at the fact that he set up his family and children for generations to come with the four-year, $84 million extension he signed, there was definite disappointment.
There were multiple occasions when Buckner signaled that he was unhappy with the way the 49ers’ front office approached his situation, indicating that he never received a competitive offer from them.
“It really did teach me a lot about the business side of things,” Buckner said. “I felt like I did all the right things on and off the field. Obviously, I wanted to be there long term. The team that drafted me, the organization that drafted me, and when you’re drafted to an organization, your initial thoughts are, ‘I want to be here until I retire,’ but I mean, unfortunately, it didn’t shake out that way. That’s just the nature of the business and the thing that kind of sucks with the whole salary cap situation.”
The 49ers made a calculation. That calculation assessed Buckner, entering the final year of his rookie contract as too expensive to retain with Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward and Emmanuel Sanders all expiring, and future extensions needed for George Kittle and Fred Warner.
We can get into the weeds of whether it was or wasn’t the right decision. Those discussions are already being waged again in an online frenzy right now. But what might sting the most from what Buckner said Wednesday is that he never got a competitive offer from the 49ers.
“When I had a conversation with John [Lynch], we sat down and I told John, ‘Look, I know my agent’s telling me, I’m worth this, but obviously I’m able to meet in the middle, some way, somehow, I want to be here,'” Buckner said. “But I didn’t want to take too big of a pay cut. I know what I’m actually worth. I had a baby on the way. I’ve got to think of my family.”
Buckner said the 49ers didn’t have “much wiggle room,” and when asked if the team offered him anywhere near the four-year, $84 million extension he received from the Colts, he said, unequivocally, “No.”
After the front office was so glowing in its praise of Buckner for so many years and he became so beloved inside and outside of the locker room, the lack of a competitive offer is something of a gut punch. It implies the 49ers made their assessment that Buckner couldn’t be afforded, or wasn’t worth paying for quickly, and shut the door.
Buckner said he expected a trade in the week before, when the 49ers told him and his agents to look for trade partners.
He said the trade gave him a chip on his shoulder, but at this point, that relates more to proving the Colts right than the 49ers wrong. After being named to his first All-Pro team last year, when he had 9.5 sacks, he appears to be doing that.
The newly-minted All-Pro also relished in the other positive part of the equation. With him being traded, his close friend, and former Oregon teammate Arik Armstead got a massive, five-year, $85 million deal.
“Especially him been such a great friend and seeing him get paid and what he’s been able to accomplish… I was very happy for him,” Buckner said.
Still, the what-ifs remain, sitting there at the surface. What if the 49ers reworked Jimmy Garoppolo’s contract to keep everyone? What if they signed Tom Brady and backloaded his contract?
There were ways. The 49ers just believed those avenues were too costly to pursue.
Jimmie Ward, who was retained as part of the plan to move Buckner, was asked about the deal on Monday. He said that while he understood something significant had to happen and that everyone wasn’t going to be retained, he looks at teams like the Rams, who consistently manipulate the cap to retain and acquire key players, and felt like there was a way Buckner could have stayed.
“I mean, initially, I was like man, the Chiefs did it after winning the Super Bowl,” Buckner said. “Tampa Bay did it. Like Jimmie said, the Rams did it. Essentially, people put the effort in to find a way and some guys don’t, and it just doesn’t go your way.”
And he’s right.
The Buccaneers stretched the caps to lengths to keep everyone around. A Tom Brady contract extension created room that allowed them to retain Chris Godwin (franchise tag), Lavonte David (on an extraordinarily back-heavy, two-year, $25 million deal), star edge rusher Shaq Barrett to a four-year, $72 million deal, Rob Gronkowski on a one-year, $10 deal, and a handful of other useful retentions.
That was the Buccaneers’ approach after winning the Super Bowl last year. They manipulated the cap to extraordinary lengths, in ways San Francisco has demonstrated it is willing to pursue.
After the 49ers’ Super Bowl appearance, they traded Buckner, essentially, for Javon Kinlaw. They re-signed Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward to hefty extensions, and let Emmanuel Sanders — who wanted to go to a pass-happier offense — walk.
The benefit the Buccaneers had, though, was their love of Tom Brady. San Francisco has made it abundantly clear they didn’t want to touch Garoppolo’s money… yet didn’t earnestly pursue Brady, and are now keeping Garoppolo the starter ahead of Trey Lance.
There were ways to create the space to retain everyone, at least in the short term, but the 49ers opted to reset the cap clock at defensive tackle instead, perhaps also considering the likely monumental cost of a future Nick Bosa extension.
Buckner will be welcomed back with open arms at his homecoming this Sunday night, and that will come at the expense of the 49ers’ front office which has bet its future on a rookie quarterback who is not currently starting. A loss, especially in one which Buckner plays a key role, would reopen that scar tissue even further.