By HCR Staff | May 21, 2020
The 49ers rode a dominant defense all the way to the Super Bowl last year, and while they failed to protect a 10-point lead in the second half, the unit looked poise to have a run of 3-4 years as the pre-eminent defense in the NFL.
However, a run like that was going to be dependent on their treatment of defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. Both linemen were reaching the high leverage business point in their careers, and both were poised to secure contracts that would make them among the highest paid defenders in the league.
The 49ers essentially had three choices available to them (and for this discussion, we’re going to set aside what each would fetch the 49ers in return for their loss – we’re focusing strictly on the on-field impact).
The first would be to try to do whatever they could to keep both. But given that both linemen were seeking at least $20M annual salaries, keeping both would require the 49ers to make severe compromises and cuts to other position groups, so that was an unrealistic option, particularly since no other team in the league has two defensive linemen making that kind of money.
The second option would be to keep Buckner, and let Armstead go. Buckner’s been the more consistent player by far, and while he doesn’t move around the line as much as Armstead, his consistency more than makes up for that. Simply put, he’s been the better player. Many would say that along with Rams DT Aaron Donald, Buckner is the best DT in all of football.
The third option would be to keep Armstead, and let Buckner go. Armstead’s basically had one premium year – last year – and choosing this option requires the 49ers to conclude that last year’s performance was not an aberration. Moreover, as Armstead is primarily an end, such a conclusion requires the 49ers to also conclude that Armstead’s performance last year wasn’t helped much by Buckner’s effectiveness inside.
The 49ers ultimately chose to extend Armstead, and trade Buckner to the Colts (the 49ers did acquire draft assets from the Colts to soften the blow).
If it were up to us, we would have done anything we could have to keep Buckner. We just think he’s the superior player, long term. And we don’t even think it’s close.
But we’re not an NFL GM, and we’re not privy to all of the facts the 49ers possessed. For example, what if the 49ers simply didn’t agree as a matter of principle with Buckner’s salary demands? And the 49ers knew they could get Armstead extended at a price that was actually below what they were projecting? Or their internal research indicated that there was only a marginal quality difference between the two?
It’s also possible the 49ers placed a greater premium on Armstead’s versatility along the line than what other observers think.
We’re not piling on the 49ers here; we’re just illustrating a hard choice that NFL GMs and head coaches have to confront all the time.
But for us, this was the most interesting decision of the 2020 free agency period. We think it could destabilize the best defense of 2019, and at the same time, make the Colts legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The Colts have an aggressive, young defense full of athleticism, but it lacked a true 3-technique defensive tackle to anchor it.
Now the Colts have that player in Buckner, and now they have a chance to do what the 49ers did in 2019.