INDIANAPOLIS – It’s always good to be wanted, and DeForest Buckner already is feeling the love from the Indianapolis Colts.
Even if it has to remain a long-distance relationship for now.
The Pro Bowl defensive tackle became arguably the biggest acquisition of Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard’s career Monday when it was announced the Colts had agreed to trade a first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for his services.
Ballard sweetened the deal by adding a four-year contract extension – reportedly worth $84 million – to make Buckner the second-highest paid interior defensive lineman in NFL history by annual average.
So the fact the 6-foot-7, 295-pound defender has to wait awhile to meet his new teammates while continuing to train in California and Florida seems like a minor inconvenience.
Players won’t be allowed back into team facilities until April 1 at the earliest as the NFL takes precautions against the global coronavirus pandemic.
But Buckner couldn’t hide his glee at the thought of getting acquainted with his new home.
“I mean, obviously, I knew that this was a possibility for a couple of days and everything,” Buckner said on a conference call Wednesday with local media. “It’s just the nature of the business, man. This is just the way the dice were rolled. I had to just accept the fact that it is part of the business and everything, and I was just really excited for the opportunity that the Indianapolis Colts were giving me.
“I got to have some really good conversations with my wife moving forward. Like I said before, we just can’t wait to get out there to the city, really get to the facility and meet everybody and really start moving in.”
He’ll be welcomed with open arms.
The trade – which was officially confirmed by the Colts about two hours after the new league year started at 4 p.m. Wednesday – reportedly had been in the works as far back as February.
Ballard was a big fan of the way San Francisco’s NFC championship team was built, especially along the defensive front.
The 49ers were a dominant force throughout the postseason, including the first three quarters of Super Bowl 54, as they smothered opposing offenses with relentless pressure. A front four featuring Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, rookie Nick Bosa and Buckner did much of the heavy lifting.
Buckner recorded 7.5 sacks during the regular season and added 2.5 more in the playoffs, including 1.5 against Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
Since being drafted with the seventh overall pick out of Oregon in 2016, Buckner has recorded 28.5 sacks, 74 quarterback hits and 38 tackles for loss in 63 career games. He’s had 19.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in the past two seasons alone.
“DeForest is a premier defensive tackle in this league, and we’re thrilled to add him to our roster,” Ballard said in a team release. “Adding a player of his caliber demonstrates the importance and commitment of building a strong defensive front. He will bring a veteran presence to our locker room and will lead with his work ethic. DeForest’s consistency as a pro on and off the field will make us a better team.”
Ballard spoke often after the season ended in January about the need to add a dominant player at the three-technique defensive tackle position.
That’s the spot manned by Warren Sapp on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl championship team, Booger McFarland when Indianapolis won it all following the 2006 season and Tommie Harris for some of the best Chicago Bears defenses in the early 2000s.
“The three-technique drives this thing,” Ballard said in January. “It does. Every time I’ve been a part of this (defensive scheme), the three-technique drives this.”
The idea is to bring pressure on the quarterback up the middle. That often throws off the timing of the offensive play and can help to contain the passer in the pocket.
With quarterbacks increasingly able to hurt defenses with their arm and their legs, interior pressure and containment takes on even greater importance.
In Buckner, Ballard acquired a player considered among the best in the game.
He’s agile enough to split double teams in seconds, fast enough to chase down mobile quarterbacks and stout enough to stay in the game against the run.
Buckner already understands he’ll play a critical role on the field and in the locker room for Indianapolis.
“Obviously, they’re looking for a three-technique, and I think I’m one of the best in the league,” Buckner said. “I can stop the run, rush the passer. Obviously, I’m taller, but I play with leverage. I have a lot power. My length obviously helps me a lot with trucking down, whether it’s a running back or a quarterback on the run, and obviously if I can’t get to the quarterback then (I’m) trying to disrupt the passing lanes with my length. Just little things like that.
“I feel like I can bring my leadership, whether it’s on or off the field, just being able to lead by example or speaking up when I need to to address certain things. It all starts in practice. I practice how I want to play in the game, whether it’ll (tick) somebody off, I’m just trying to perfect my craft. Every day I approach the game where if I’m not getting better, I’m getting worse.”
Buckner likes what he’s seen from all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard on film, and Ford told him “amazing things” about Houston from their time together with the Chiefs.
He’s excited about his fit with the Colts and what he sees as the team’s “win-now” philosophy. Indianapolis also is soon expected to announce the signing of free agent quarterback Philip Rivers, and franchise left tackle Anthony Castonzo signed a new two-year, $33 million contract Sunday.
But it won’t be easy for Buckner to leave San Francisco. He was a key part of the team’s surge from 2-14 in his rookie season to the Super Bowl in February. He also was the victim of a looming salary-cap crunch.
The 49ers re-signed Armstead for $18.5 million per year hours before announcing the trade with the Colts. Tight end George Kittle also is line for a record-breaking extension, and looking further down the line San Francisco eventually will need to invest even more money in the defensive line when Bosa’s rookie deal expires.
With his obvious talent, Buckner could command a first-round pick in return. So the 49ers opted to take the opportunity to add another cost-effective piece to the puzzle.
“When you play your heart out for an organization and you’re obviously one of the key guys, obviously you build a lot of lifelong relationships there and everything,” Buckner said. “To find the fact that you are a possibility to be traded, I mean, obviously with any person or any guy in this profession, it would kind of hurt a little bit. But, at the same time, you can’t take it personal because it’s the business of the game. It’s the business we chose.
“The only thing that I can control is my attitude moving forward, and I’m just blessed to have this opportunity. The fact that this organization is willing to believe in me and bring me in – feeling wanted and needed at a certain place, it feels good. I’m just excited to be able to show everyone what I can bring to the table.”