Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner has helped transform the Colts' defense in 2020, rewarding general manager Chris Ballard's aggressive approach to landing him in the offseason. Ballard was the most persistent suitor when Buckner was granted permission to seek a trade back in February, sources said and made acquiring the elite defensive tackle the lynchpin of his offseason.
The Colts rushing defense is 20 yards per game better this season, with Buckner's presence a primary reason why, and they are also able to get quarterback pressure despite rarely blitzing in large part due to the arrival of Buckner. He is in the top five of all interior defensive linemen in QB pressures per QB drop back and the Colts rank in the top five in many key defensive metrics at the midpoint of the season.
The Buckner trade was completed in less than a week, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, and the origins of it came from a meeting in Indianapolis ... but not involving the Colts. At the NFL scouting combine last year, Buckner's agent, Joel Segal, met with the 49ers brass, including coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe. Buckner was entering the final year of his deal and Segal made it clear to the team that the defensive tackle would not be agreeing to any extension with San Francisco worth less than $20M per season.
The conversations were amicable but it became clear quickly the team was not going to be willing to do a deal of that magnitude and the 49ers granted Buckner's representation permission to seek a trade during that meeting. Within a week, terms had been agreed to on a trade to the Colts, and a long-term extension for Buckner.
There were a handful of teams, four to six, who expressed serious interest in Buckner when informed he was available in trade, sources said, but Ballard was the most diligent suitor. He stayed in constant contact, expressed an immediate willingness to do a long-term deal and Buckner believed in the direction that defense was headed.
Ballard's very direct and persistent approach carried the day, the 49ers were willing to accept just a first-round pick for the difference-maker despite numerous recent trades for similar players yielding multiple first-round picks and more (Laremy Tunsil, Jalen Ramsey, Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper), and the contract details -- with an average salary of $21M per year -- were quickly hammered out.
Buckner went from paying about 13% in state income tax to 3%, also fostering a quick resolution, and sources said there was not much doubt throughout the brief process that this is where the tackle was going to land. The 49ers used the 13th overall pick they received to select Buckner's replacement, Javon Kinlaw, but injuries have wrecked their defense and the line and pass rush have suffered significantly in 2021.
Through half a season, the Buckner trade looks like one of the most impactful transactions and biggest steals of the 2020 offseason, and the Colts defense faces their stiffest test of the season with the 5-2 Ravens and reigning MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson in Indianapolis on Sunday.