GOOD MOVE OR BAD MOVE?
Niner Report|February/March 2021
Revisiting 49ers’ 2020 personnel decisions
Craig Massei

DEFOREST BUCKNER

The 49ers had the right idea in 2020. Coming off the team’s most prodigious season of the 21st century, and with a roster stocked with rising talent, veteran leadership, and quality depth, San Francisco’s forthright strategy to stay the course that had been so shrewdly and meticulously mapped over the previous three years by general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan seemed the most logical approach to nurture a budding powerhouse. But even the most brilliant ideas and well-charted plans don’t always work out. Particularly when a worldwide pandemic gets in the way and many other things go wrong as well. It would have been difficult to foresee all the adversity the 49ers would ultimately face during the past season, and even if they knew what was coming, what else could they have done about it? Here, The Niner Report revisits the significant moves of the offseason — and other transactions the 49ers felt compelled to make while their season was falling apart — and examines how they worked out for the team during the NFL’s tumultuous 2020 season of COVID-19.

Casting away a centerpiece

The logic behind the stunning March 18 trade of defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis for the Colts’ No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft certainly was sound for a variety of reasons.

Buckner was about to land a massive contract extension that could considerably impact the team’s salary-cap flexibility and ability to retain other young stars in upcoming years. The 49ers needed to re-sign other key players from their 2019 Super Bowl team that were about to hit free agency, and with that high first-round pick received from the Colts, the 49ers could find a costeffective replacement for Buckner that would be tied to a rookie contract until the middle of this decade.

The 49ers did not make this move carelessly or without considerable angst and consideration, but they finally pulled the trigger on the decision to part ways with one of their top young stars with the intention of retaining more of those type of individuals in the near future.

San Francisco probably didn’t underestimate what a special individual Buckner is and was to the team — a respected and undisputed leader who put the team first, a dominant force in the defensive trenches and a reliable, every-down stalwart who never missed games and represented himself as an ambassador of 49ers football that the team could count on every day both on and off the field.

But taking the risk of sending away one of the faces of the franchise — not to mention the heart of a fearsome defensive front that led San Francisco into Super Bowl LIV — ultimately backfired for the 2020 49ers. In this injury-ravaged season, the 49ers profoundly missed Buckner’s unique combination of durability, productivity, and leadership more than they ever could have imagined during the time of the deal.

While San Francisco’s defensive line just wasn’t the same without Buckner — particularly after starters Solomon Thomas and Nick Bosa went down with season-ending knee injuries in Week 2 — Buckner continued on his path of greatness with the Colts. Buckner earned first-team All-Pro honors, put his name on the short list of candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors and helped transform an Indianapolis team that finished the season eighth in the NFL rankings for total defense and reached the playoffs after tying Tennessee atop the AFC South with an 115 record.

Meanwhile, Javon Kinlaw — the youngster the 49ers selected with the draft pick obtained from Indy — was forced into the starting lineup ahead of schedule due to the aforementioned injuries and was a complementary player at best most of the season instead of a centerpiece others rallied around. Kinlaw came on during the second half of the season, displayed gradual development and showed some nice flashes that he may someday become a very good player.

But he clearly was no Buckner.

The verdict: Thumbs way down Choosing who to pay

There was a prevalent belief heading into the 2020 offseason that the 49ers were going to have to choose between Buckner and fellow line lynchpin Arik Armstead who along the team’s defensive interior San Francisco ultimately was going to pay the big bucks.

Most thought it would be Buckner, the better player and more visible team leader.

Surprise, surprise. San Francisco decided to pay Armstead instead.

Not many expected the 49ers would be able to retain Armstead after his breakout season of 2019 came during his contract year. Armstead, San Francisco’s 2015 first-round draft pick, had been an injury-plagued disappointment through his first three NFL seasons before emerging in 2018 and then recording a team-high 10 sacks in 2019 while playing a major role along the NFL’s best and most productive defensive line.

That put Armstead — whether he’d really earned it or not, since his first four NFL seasons had produced a grand total of nine sacks — in a position for a massive payday as he prepared to hit free agency as one of the best defenders available on the open market.

The 49ers had viewed Armstead as a vital piece of their defensive success as well, and his versatility to play both inside and outside in the team’s defensive fronts was a factor in the decision to reward Armstead with a blockbuster fiveyear, $85 million contract extension that included a $17.5 million signing bonus and $45.85 million in guaranteed money before he could test his worth in free agency.

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