The 49ers tried to lowball DeForest Buckner, and lost

The San Francisco 49ers never offered DeForest Bucker close to the 4 year, $84 million contract that he eventually signed with the Indianapolis Colts. That information came directly from Buckner during a conference call with Bay Area media Wednesday morning.

The trade of Buckner and the contract that followed has become a topic again this week as the former 49ers defensive tackle gets ready to make his return to the Bay Area to take on his old team Sunday night.

As the 2019 season began to wind down there were a number of question marks about how the 49ers would manage the salary cap going forward. The team had a number of starters with contracts that would be expiring and there were going to be some tough decisions made on who would stay and who would go.

San Francisco would eventually decide to move on from Buckner, trading him to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for the 13th selection in the 2020 NFL draft. The 49ers would eventually trade back one spot on draft day with Tampa Bay and use the 14th selection on defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.

Shortly after the trade was consummated, reports came out that Buckner had signed a 4-year, $84 million deal with the Colts. The general reaction to the new deal was it now made sense for the 49ers to have moved on. After all, they had to find a way to re-sign Jimmie Ward, and there were big contracts on the horizon for George Kittle and Fred Warner.

The feeling that San Francisco had made the right choice only gained more traction when the team announced they had re-signed Arik Armstead to a 5-year, $85 million contract. There was no way they could have kept all of there own players and also paid a defensive tackle $21 million per year, Armstead did the team a favor by saving them $4 million per year and giving the 49ers salary cap relief.

Or was there?

The reports of Buckner’s extension failed to mention that the new deal was actually an extension of the rookie contract with the 49ers, which meant it was actually 5-years, $96.378 million with and average annual value of slightly under $19.3 million. This isn’t anything new, agents want to pump up the perceived value of contracts for their clients all of the time. It’s good for business.

Had the 49ers offered Buckner the same extension as he eventually received from Indianapolis while using the structure they eventually gave Armstead to manipulate the salary cap the 49ers would have been able to keep a proven team leader and All-Pro, along with making all of the moves they made to bring back their core.

The total spend for Arik Armstead, Jimmie Ward, Fred Warner, and Trent Williams whom San Francisco acquired via a trade with Washington has been $47 million against the 2020-21 salary cap.

Had the 49ers used Armstead’s contract structure to keep Buckner along with Jimmie Ward, Fred Warner, and Trent Williams the total spend would have been $45.3 million against the salary cap.

Those numbers are assuming it would have taken the same contract given from Indianapolis to keep Buckner. That may not have been the case however.

On Wednesday, Bucker stated that prior to the trade he met with 49ers general manager John Lynch and told him he would be willing to take less money than what his agent felt he was worth. “Someway, some how, I want to be here, but I didn’t want to take too big of a pay cut because I know what I am actually worth,” said Buckner.

The 49ers held a hard line on what they were willing to offer and lost more than they received. Buckner was a respected team leader and someone who made everyone around him better.

Without Buckner the San Francisco defensive line has continued to be strong, but they are nowhere near the dominant unit they were in 2019, and that’s part of why the 49ers have more losses than wins in 2021.

This article has 26 Comments

  1. The 49ers didn’t try to lowball Buckner. They simply weren’t willing to pay Buckner what they knew he was worth, so they traded him the Colts, who were more than willing to pay him what he was worth. I am sure the situation was bittersweet for both the 49ers and DeFo as well. The 49ers have a business to run though, and sometimes they have to make these kinds of tough financial decisions.

    And I think the choice between Buckner and Armstead was a sound choice, because Armstead’s versatility was major factor, it wasn’t only about the money. And let’s be clear, Jack, Armstead and DeFo play two very different roles on the 49ers DL when they are playing in their intended roles. When you factor in the versatility factor, I think the 49ers feel that Armstead’s impact is just as significant as Buckner’s. In fact, according to NEXT GEN STATS, Armstead has been among the most versatile DL in the NFL, rushing the passer from the edge and interior at a near-even rate last season, although Armstead was more effective as a pass rusher from the interior (9.1% pressure rate) than from edge alignment (6.5%). So when you factor in the fact that the 49ers are saving significant money by retaining Armstead over DeFo over the course of those contracts, despite your fuzzy math, lol. That’s not to say they couldn’t have made it work if they really wanted to, but they really liked DT prospect Javon Kinlaw, and that’s probably where we should be focusing our attention.

    But, I do think it is fair to question whether replacing DeForest Buckner with Javon Kinlaw was a successful plan.

    Like I said, Armstead and DeFo played two very different roles on the 49ers DL, but Kinlaw on the other hand, was drafted to primarily take over DeForest Buckner’s role at LDT, primarily at the 3T, and so far, Kinlaw’s knee is a serious issue that is clearly holding him back – at least this season. I think Kinlaw does offer more run stopping versatility than DeFo at the 1T, but I do question whether he will ever reach DeFo’s level as a penetrating 3 Technique, although he does remain a work in progress.

    1. Without Buckner the San Francisco defensive line has continued to be strong, but they are nowhere near the dominant unit they were in 2019, and that’s part of why the 49ers have more losses than wins in 2021.

      This statement is misleading, IMO. First of all, let’s not forget how much better the 49ers running game was in 2019. And as I’ve pointed out a million times, the 49ers leaned on their running game a lot in 2019.

      But focusing on the DL – that 2019 Defensive Line was absolutely dominant, however, they were pretty average against the run. They gave up 113 YPG on the ground, which is identical to the current 2021 DL, which is also giving up 113 YPG.

      As for the 2019 – DL, in terms of a pass-rushing unit? It’s impossible to draw the conclusion that DeForest Buckner was the reason the 49ers 2019 DL was superior in terms of pass rushing production, because a DL is made up of many components, and there are a lot of different factors that determine how well those components play as a collective group. For instance: take DE – Dee Ford. He was absolutely dominant for a large portion of the 2019 season. However, the Pro Bowl pass rusher has played sparingly this season because he’s still experiencing discomfort, and the 49ers are worried about him (knock on wood), and when he has played, he hasn’t been anywhere near the same player he was in 2019. It’s also worth remembering that Armstead himself had a career year in 2019, leading the team in sacks in large part because of that versatility which the 49ers value so much. Also, both Ronald Blair and Sheldon Day had career years in 2019 as well.

      Again, Jack, I think your beef is with replacing DeFo with Javon Kinlaw, it’s not really about Arik Armstead at all!

      1. My beef is replacing an an All-Pro level player with two guys who don’t match his productivity combined.

        2019 #49ers defense per game: 113 yards rushing, 169 yards passing
        2021 49ers defense per game: 113 yards rushing, 217 yards passing

        The 49ers run defense has remained at the same level while their pass defense has dropped off. I wonder why that might be.

        San Francisco’s adjusted sack rate in 2019 was 9.0% which ranked second in the NFL. In 2020 that number fell to 5.3% (24th) and this season they are at 6.1% (19th). The 2020 dip can be explained away because they lost Bosa and Ford. That’s not true about 2021. Ford played 22% of the snaps in 2019. He’s played 28% so far in 2021.

        Buckner was someone that Robert Saleh used to help open up plays for others.

        Pass rush productivity 2020-2021:
        Arik Armstead and Javon Kinlaw: 6 sacks, 20 QB hits
        DeForest Buckner: 11.5 sacks, 32 QB hits

        The lack of pass rush results in fewer turnovers which in turn hurts the offense. In 2019 the 49ers had the 4th best starting field position. In 2020 that dropped to 25th, and they’re currently at 30th. In fact, the 49ers average starting field position so far this season has been the worst they’ve faced since 2015.

        1. Jack: I agree totally and have been saying so for about 18 months. It was also reported about a year ago that Buckner was willing to meet the team in the middle and I wrote a post response at that time. Giving up a pro bowl player who was always available was a mistake in my opinion. For this team the injury history of a player should be considered in evaluations , IMO.

        2. Jack, I am not arguing that the 49ers DL wasn’t better with DeFo! There’s no question that it was. I’m just saying that you can’t pin that on keeping Buckner over Armstead! Like I said, the issue isn’t keeping Armstead over Buckner. That’s a flawed argument, Jack, any way you frame it. They definitely were better with Buckner, and they miss him! That’s a fact! But the reason they miss Buckner so much, has nothing to do with Armstead, and that’s my point! It’s because Javon Kinlaw hasn’t held up as a replacement for DeFo, especially in adjusted sack rate. Javon Kinlaw doesn’t have nearly the same impact against the pass, as DeFo, that’s definitely a fact, but there are also other factors that come into account, separate from this debate.

          I am not sure why you are including 2020 stats, because we both agree that we can toss out 2020 due to injuries across the board, and like I said, Armstead was playing out of position as well.

          Also, I am not sure what you mean by lowball? If the 49ers were trying to lowball him, why wouldn’t they take him up on his offer to take less money? It’s because they wanted to find a cheaper option for Buckner’s role, that’s why. So again …. Armstead is really irrelevant in this discussion, as he and Buckner don’t even really play the same position anyhow, and they certainly play very different roles, so I don’t quite understand the premise? This was about finding a replacement for Buckner at a cheaper price, it wasn’t about choosing between Armstead and Buck. It’s just that the guy they chose to replace him, isn’t who they were hoping they would get at #13, or #15, wherever they ended up drafting Javon Kinlaw. That ended up being a mistake, but again, it’s not really about Armstead.

            1. How? They don’t play the same position. And if Kinlaw were who they thought they were getting, this wouldn’t even be an issue. It’s about the decision to trade Buckner and draft Kinlaw, that’s where the whole thing broke down.

              In fact, a strong case can be made right now, that Armstead is more valuable to the 49ers, than Buckner is for the Colts. Armstead has probably outplayed Buckner this year when you factor in his ability to line up on the edge, and inside. Buckner can’t do that.

              In fact, PFF doesn’t even think it’s close between the two this season.

              PFF 2021 grades:

              Armstead: 89.4
              Buckner: 73.7

              Again, it’s about not finding a comparable replacement for Buckner, that’s the problem. It’s impossible to know if the DL would be any better with Buckner over Armstead, because Armstead’s versatility adds to his value.

              The 49ers would do it all over again, only they would have drafted a different player than Kinlaw.

              1. I think part of the reason you are discounting Armstead’s impact on the DL is because of last season, when he was playing out of position so much. Everyone knows the 49ers put him in an unfortunate position last year, so I don’t know why you keep using that season for comparison.

                Can you imagine if Buckner was they guy who was forced to play Armstead’s role in 2020, mostly on the edge? It would probably have gone a whole lot worse, because Armstead has real value as an edge defender in base, Buckner doesn’t.

                Also, even Football Outsiders has Armstead rated higher this season.

              2. Actually 49, while they don’t play the same position, I think Buckner could easily do what Armstead is asked to do and do it better.
                The only issue I have with Jack’s argument is I don’t know what Armstead gets you in a trade? As his Buckner vs Armstead argument doesn’t seem to be including the value of the 13th overall pick. Does Armstead even bring a second rounder? I doubt it. That’s why I think, regardless of the Buckner trade, Armstead was overpaid.

            2. Jack,
              Here we kind of disagree.

              It wasn’t about choosing between Armstead and Buckner. I was about between choosing between Armstead + the 13 overall pick vs Buckner.

              I actually still would argue it was the correct move… the problem is what they did with the pick.
              For example if this team didn’t have Kinlaw but had Ceedee lamb, Justin Jefferson or Wirfs and Armstead vs Buckner would anyone really be complaining? (*Note* I likely would have gone with Juedy, as he was my draft crush).

              I Likely also have let Armstead walk as well, as I rate him highly as an interior rusher but poorly as an edge rusher. And make no mistake about it, SF paid him more than he was worth due to the fact that he was listed as a DE… the problem was almost all of his pressures/sacks came from the inside.

              With the savings and picks SF could have retooled their defense.

  2. It’s next to impossible to replace an all pro, but we are only 5 games into this season and there is a lot left to be determined including future years. Their reasoning included the ability to sign other players. There will always differing opinions on this and some cherry picking of facts but it’s a done deal so history will be the final judge.

    1. Agreed. Buckner has his side of the story and the team has theirs. What is true likely lies somewhere in the middle. I highly doubt the team just decided to move on from a guy they valued as much as Buck or tried to low ball him, but there was obviously some long term planning on big contracts coming up at that time that could have influenced the decision. I’d love to have him but he’s moved on and it’s time for us to do the same.

      1. The 49ers never offered what Indianapolis eventually gave to Buckner. Their process to signing players is well known, and if Shanahan hadn’t gotten involved Trent Williams would be a Chief right now as a result.

        The productivity from Buckner is worth more than the $17 million the team gave to Armstead.

        1. Agreed but that was not the only consideration. There was also being able to sign Ward. They also wouldn’t have been able to draft Aiyuk. My opinion is that both sides made decisions regarding money. They both had a bottom line that they each stuck to and the result was the trade. Buckner said he was disappointed that the Niners didn’t try harder and I guess the Niners feel the same way about him. Of course we’ll never know the full story on negotiations.

          1. If the 49ers had offered him the same $84 million and spread it out over 5 years like Indianapolis using the cap structure of Armstead’s deal they could have kept their All-Pro defensive tackle along with signing every player they did in 2020 and since. That was the whole point of the article.

            They chose to instead give the money to Armstead.

            1. So why didn’t they? Did they believe Buckner wouldn’t have accepted that deal at the time? Was he insisting on more from the Niners? Or did the Niners prefer Armstead? We’ll probably Never know the answer.

  3. It’s going to be quite interesting watching an old fashion football game at Levi’s on Sunday Night.

    Hopefully the torrential downpour and high winds are in effect- maybe we’ll get a taste of that 49ers Run & D, Inc. returning to their ways.

    Always love these type of games where the elements have an impact on the game. Hopefully Mitchell, Hasty, Sermon et al are up for it.

    I know one man is thrilled with the weather report. Our very own Mike McGarbage who would prefer every game played in 38 mph wind gusts so he never has to pass block again. 😃

  4. Not resigning Buckner was a major mistake in my opinion. I will never understand the logic behind that one. Like Jack pointed out, you can’t really say it was a salary cap thing when your actions after the trade showed it was definitely not a salary cap thing. Armstead is not in the same echelon as Buckner and Kinlaw is a work in progress so from a personnel perspective the 49ers are worse without Buckner. I feel like Buckner has Hall of Fame talent. You just can’t let those guys get away when you have them under contract. I can’t decide which was the worst personnel decision: Trading Buckner, drafting Solomon Thomas, or trading up in the 1st round to draft Reuben Foster.

  5. When it was announced, I saw the Buckner-Armstead decision as the opposite of the Bryant Young-Stubblefield decision. Back then, niners picked the team leader and the better player over the guy playing well for his contract year and was rewarded. This time around they went the other way and they’ve been suffering for it.

  6. If Armstead keeps playing the way he has been this season then the decision to go with him over Buckner will be just fine.

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