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DeForest Buckner leaving big shoes for 49ers to fill

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They had to get worse. They had no choice.

The 49ers couldn’t re-sign both DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead — not enough cap space. And the 49ers knew trading either one would hurt the team. What a tremendously difficult position to be in.

After careful consideration, the 49ers decided to trade Buckner, not Armstead, even though Buckner is better and they know it.

Last season, Buckner won the Bill Walsh Award, which the 49ers coaching staff gives to the team’s MVP.

And in 2018, Buckner won the Len Eshmont Award, which teammates give to the 49ers’ most inspirational player. That season, he recorded 12 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl.

Armstead has never gone to a Pro Bowl or won an award. And during his five-year career, he has had just one good season — 2019, when he recorded 10 sacks in 776 defensive snaps, or one sack every 77.6 plays. The previous four seasons, he recorded just nine sacks in 1,621 snaps, or one sack every 180.1 plays.

Despite Armstead’s history of underperforming, the 49ers believed they’d be worse off trading him than Buckner. That’s because Buckner is more expensive.

Buckner is the second-best defensive tackle in the NFL after the Rams’ Aaron Donald, and wants someone to pay him accordingly. The 49ers decided they couldn’t pay Buckner what he deserves. So they traded Buckner to the Colts for the 13th pick in the upcoming draft, and the Colts immediately gave Buckner a contract which averages a whopping $21 million per season.

Meanwhile, Armstead accepted a contract from the 49ers worth $17 million per season. And the 49ers backloaded the contract, meaning it won’t cost much against the salary cap until 2022. That allowed them to re-sign most of their free agents, including free safety Jimmie Ward, defensive end Ronald Blair and center Ben Garland. Plus, the 49ers extended qualifying offers to Kendrick Bourne and Matt Breida. Had the 49ers kept Buckner, all those players might have left.

So the 49ers chose to keep as much of last season’s team together as possible, which is understandable — the 49ers went to the Super Bowl.

But the players the 49ers re-signed are question marks. Armstead is a one-year wonder who, as is often the case, played well in a contract year. Ward hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2015, and Blair tore his ACL last season. Plus, the first-round draft pick the 49ers received for Buckner is a question mark, too, because not all first-rounders pan out. There’s no such thing as a guarantee. The 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster in the first round and both are busts.

Meanwhile, Buckner is a consistent performer who makes everyone around him better, because he draws so many double-team blocks from offensive linemen. On third downs in particular, he usually gets blocked by a center and a guard while the rest of the 49ers’ pass rushers get one-on-one matchups. Buckner consistently made their jobs easier last season, and still recorded 7.5 sacks — impressive for a defensive tackle who faced so many double teams.

Armstead recorded 10 sacks, often because the double teams on Buckner freed him up. Next season, the opposing center and guard will double-team him on third downs, meaning his production could drop dramatically. He might finish next season with, say, 2.5 sacks — his yearly average from 2015 to 2018. And his fellow defensive tackle, Thomas — Buckner’s replacement — never has recorded more than three sacks in a season and could struggle as well, just as he has struggled his entire career. So the 49ers’ defensive-tackle tandem could go from 17.5 sacks in 2019 to six or seven sacks in 2020, all because they traded Buckner.

Not good.

The 49ers didn’t merely lose one player — they lost their best player, plus the ripple effect he had on the rest of the defense.

They know his loss will hurt.

They know how great he is — a potential future Hall of Famer.

They simply hope the rest of the team can achieve greatness without him.

Can it?

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