San Francisco 49ers

Why DeForest Buckner’s future is the biggest 49ers story ahead of 2019 NFL Draft

49ers’ most notable moves of the offseason

Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers’ most notable moves of the NFL offseason
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Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers’ most notable moves of the NFL offseason

There’s an elephant in the room surrounding the future of one of the 49ers’ most important players, and the NFL Draft could prove to be a significant turning point for that player and the franchise.

The contract status of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, and whether he gets a lucrative extension beyond his rookie deal, could set the course for what the team does with the No. 2 overall pick April 25.

Why?

Because Buckner’s future could determine if the team picks Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa or Alabama’s Quinnen Williams. The latter could be Buckner’s cheaper long-term replacement, allowing them to trade Buckner for a bounty of draft picks while saving significantly against the salary cap.

Yes, it’s blasphemous to talk about a future that doesn’t include Buckner, 25, in red and gold. He’s been the team’s best and most consistent defensive player since he was taken with the No. 7 pick in 2016. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2018 as an injury replacement after setting a career-high with 12 sacks and won the Len Eshmont Award, the team’s most prestigious honor voted on by players for “inspirational and courageous play.” He’s also one of the team’s most durable players.

Buckner is on a trajectory to become one of the NFL’s best interior defenders, if he isn’t already, now that it looks like the front office will finally surround him with front-seven talent so opposing offenses can’t single him out.

San Francisco traded for Pro Bowl edge rusher Dee Ford, who had 13 sacks last season while complementing Kansas City’s burgeoning defensive tackle Chris Jones, who was third in the NFL with 15.5 sacks. The 49ers envision similar production from Buckner paired with Ford’s explosiveness.

“Dee’s known for having, I think, the best first step in football coming off the edge,” general manager John Lynch said last month at the owners meetings. “All of a sudden, you have an (offensive) tackle who doesn’t feel so good about hanging in there so he can help on DeForest because if I do that, Dee’s gone. You start to get excited about all those things.”

But no one can say for certain Buckner will be around for the long haul. He became eligible to sign a second contract this offseason yet no agreement has been struck. The only thing we’ve heard from Buckner was an Instagram post captioned: “Tunnel Vision.”

“I’m going to be honest, I haven’t really thought too far into it,” Buckner said about his pending contract talks a day after the regular-season finale. “I’m just focused on the offseason and what I need to do to get better and try to help my team to win.”

The discussion should be at the forefront of Lynch’s mind, particularly as it relates to the draft. The 49ers will assuredly pick up Buckner’s fifth-year option for 2020, which would likely pay him some $13 million guaranteed, far less than what Buckner could be worth on the open market. That could lead to a holdout next offseason as he looks for a long-term contract.

That’s what happened with former Raiders star Khalil Mack, who has the same agent as Buckner, Joel Segal. Mack stayed away from the Raiders during the offseason program and training camp before playing on his fifth-year option with no long-term security. Oakland decided to trade him to Chicago for a package including two first-round draft picks rather than giving him the massive six-year, $141 million deal he signed with the Bears.

The 49ers could be a year away from making a similar decision. Pay Buckner some $18 million per season to keep him around, or trade him for a package that could include coveted draft picks. Moving on from Buckner could make sense after drafting Williams because some believe Williams is a better overall prospect coming out of college than Buckner was.

“One thing Kyle (Shanahan) and I — and an extension of that Jed (York) and Paraag (Marathe) — is let’s do this thing the right way such that we can build it to be sustainable,” Lynch said last month, “and we always try to take a three-year look at salary cap and cash budgets and things of that nature. So, we always look at things in a big-picture type of view.”

The 49ers have $34.5 million in salary-cap space, according to NFLPA documents, and will have to devote roughly $10 million to their draft class. That means the club is expected to roll over the least amount of cap space in years. Buckner on a new deal could take up the vast majority of that if he clocks in at $18 million to $20 million per season (it’s also worth noting the 49ers typically front-load their lucrative contracts, which could mean Buckner’s first-year payout would be the largest of the deal).

The No. 2 pick is projected to cost roughly $33.3 million over four seasons with an average cap hit of roughly $8.3 million. Simply put, Williams could cost the 49ers less than half the price of retaining Buckner after 2019. And moving on from Buckner could allow the team to recoup draft picks. The 49ers have six this year and traded away their valuable 2020 second-round pick for Ford.

The downside in drafting Williams would be passing on Bosa and the potential of having two premier edge defenders surrounding an elite defensive tackle. The defensive front would have blue-chip players at three positions instead of two. And there would be positional overlap with Williams and Buckner, who both play “three technique,” in addition to Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, interior pass rushers that could use playing time to help their development.

But drafting Williams might be the 49ers’ way to go if the financial future is greener with Buckner playing elsewhere on a massive second contract.

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