DeForest Buckner trade feels like first step in a wider plan

The San Francisco 49ers’ trade of DeForest Buckner caused surprise but gives them the flexibility to execute a wider plan this offseason.

The San Francisco 49ers sprung a shocker on Monday when they agreed to trade star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round pick.

Reports of Buckner’s trade came after the Niners announced they had signed fellow defensive lineman Arik Armstead to a five-year extension said to be worth $85million. Buckner agreed to a deal worth $21m a year with the Colts, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

San Francisco’s decision to pay Armstead rather than Buckner was met with widespread surprise. Armstead led the 49ers with 10 sacks in 2019 but had until last season failed to meet expectations having been selected in the first round in 2015.

Buckner, by contrast, has served as a cornerstone of the defense since his arrival as the seventh overall pick in 2016. A Pro Bowler in 2018 and second-team All-Pro last year, Buckner racked up 28.5 sacks in his four seasons with the Niners.

Yet, it is not difficult to find the motivation for moving on from Buckner and signing Armstead at a cheaper annual rate. While Buckner plays almost exclusively on the interior, Armstead has had success pass rushing off the edge and from the middle of the line.

For a Niners franchise that lacked ammunition to make moves this offseason, getting Buckner’s $12m cap hit for 2020 off their books on top of adding an extra first-round pick buys them the flexibility to retool their roster. As such, dealing away one of the best players on the roster feels like the first step in a grander plan from John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan.

The 49ers’ roster is still in excellent shape, but they have needs on both sides of the ball, the most pressing being at wide receiver and cornerback. With extra cap room, the Niners could push to address those positions on the open market. New contracts for Jimmie Ward and Emmanuel Sanders, yet to find new homes on the open market, can now be considered more legitimate possibilities.

However, the greater intrigue comes in the Niners’ acquisition of extra draft capital. The 13th overall pick gives San Francisco the chance to land one of the premier receivers in a loaded class at the position. Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs III are suddenly within the 49ers’ reach. They could also replace Buckner by selecting South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw if he gets out of the top 10.

Landing another first-rounder should make the 49ers much more comfortable about trading the 31st overall selection. A trade back from that spot appears near-certain should they hold onto the pick until the draft, but it could be used as a means of striking a trade for an established player such as a seemingly discontented Stefon Diggs.

The Niners were not expected to be major players this offseason. Losing a player they have developed into one of the premier defensive linemen in the NFL will undoubtedly sting, yet their increased ability to retool the roster should lessen the blow.

Next: Why DeForest Buckner is great first step for Colts this offseason

All the questions about the 49ers had surrounded how they would keep the team together, now the focus can turn to how they can utilize their extra resources to add to it.

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