DeForest Buckner graded out as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL last season. That doesn’t mean the 49ers are going to leave him inside.
At 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, it’s easy to see why DeForest Buckner is an intimidating presence for opposing quarterbacks. The 49ers want their Pro Bowl defensive tackle to do more than just frighten signal callers this season. They want Buckner to help fix their issues rushing the passer.
Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco coaching staff think they can help make Buckner more productive by moving him outside on passing downs. In theory, that will make it more difficult for teams to double team him. At the very least, it should give opposing offenses something else to think about on obvious passing downs.
The challenge is that we don’t have a ton of evidence that Buckner is a great pass rusher at the NFL level. Admittedly, it’s tough for defensive tackles to rack up stats on a regular basis. However, the fact that Buckner only had three sacks last season doesn’t portend Reggie White-like production on the outside.
The biggest takeaway here is that the 49ers coaching staff is starting to lose patience with Solomon Thomas’ ability emerge as a quality defensive end. The 2017 first round pick really struggled during his rookie season. He played a lot of snaps for the ‘Niners defense, but he only got to the quarterback three times in 14 games. Predictably, he graded out as a pretty poor option at defensive end in 2017.
The organization isn’t going to give up on Thomas in his second year, but the idea that Buckner is going to move to the outside on passing downs is not a vote of confidence. If he moves outside it likely means Thomas is going to be off the field. Arik Armstead is too productive as a pass rusher on the other side to lose many snaps to Buckner.
The real key for the 49ers is to make sure they don’t weaken themselves at two positions by toggling Buckner back and forth between tackle and end. They can’t afford to lose his dominating presence in the middle just to help make their pass rush average. Giving Bucker a few snaps at defensive end is a nice wrinkle for the San Francisco defense, but he needs to spend more than 90% of his time wreaking havoc on the inside.