SANTA CLARA — This is a portrait of the 49ers’ best player, DeForest Buckner.
Buckner is a defensive tackle and an artist. He likes sacking quarterbacks and drawing. In college, he was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year in 2015 and the winner of the breakout artist award in one of his art classes at the University of Oregon.
He won the football award for recording 10½ sacks his senior season. And he won the art award for a self-portrait called “King of Pop,” where he’s posing like Michael Jackson. Buckner used spray paint on a vinyl canvas for this piece.
He also has a tattoo portrait on his right arm of the statue of the Pietà by Michelangelo. It’s the Virgin Mary holding Jesus’ dead body. “I really like portraits,” Buckner said while standing in front of his locker.
Everyone agrees Buckner is special. He is the bright spot on a winless 49ers team, even if the stats don’t show it. He has just 1½ sacks this season. But he is the 49ers’ highest-graded player, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan.
“He’s tough to block,” Shanahan said. “He’s very good in the run game and the pass game. He’s got the ability to be a very good player in this league. I know he doesn’t have the sack numbers, but he gets after the quarterback a lot. Around the country, they’re going to notice the numbers. But from a coaching standpoint, what offensive coaches look at when they turn on the tape, he’s in the backfield, he gets to the quarterback, he affects a lot of the game.”
Shanahan appreciates Buckner. Robert Saleh, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, loves Buckner. Here is Saleh’s ode to the young defensive tackle.
“First and foremost, he’s dominant in the run game. That’s his first job, to make sure he gets great penetration, sets edges and just wreaks havoc in the backfield as much as possible.
“Obviously in the pass game, same thing, being able to win one-on-ones and get to the quarterback. He’s done an unbelievable job at doing exactly what we ask him to do.
“There is an art to being able to penetrate and maintain your gap, and I believe he’s mastered that. He can penetrate and create knock-back, still maintaining his gap, and he wins constantly. He constantly wins one-on-ones.
“His sack total is not where he wants it to be, and teams are sliding protections toward him, completely eliminating him from the game. Now, as a D-line, we’ve all got to step up. All of us. If you get a one-on-one you have to win, otherwise teams will find a way to continue to neutralize him in the pass game.
“That’s the stuff that we’re trying to work through, to see if we can find more opportunities for him to get one-on-ones. Because when he is one-on-one, he’s winning. That’s why his pressure rate is so high. That’s what makes him unique; that’s what makes him special.”
That’s not the only thing that makes Buckner unique and special. He’s a giant — 6 feet, 7 inches. He’s of mixed race; black and Samoan. And he’s from Hawaii. He grew up in a small town on Oahu called Waianae.