49ers DL DeForest Buckner Living up to First-round Expectations

Six sacks and 70 tackles. Those were the benchmarks DeForest Buckner set for himself before embarking on his first season in the NFL.

Five sacks and 65 tackles. Those are Buckner's current numbers with three games left to play in 2016. Suffice to say, the San Francisco 49ers have gotten everything they'd hoped for thus far from the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

And Buckner's development throughout the season has been evident.

"We've seen him transform into a guy that can now make plays in the run-pass game, and he's been unbelievable," Jim O'Neil said on Tuesday. "There are just a couple little things that you probably don't see unless you really study the tape, but he had a quarterback hit early in that game…"

San Francisco's defensive coordinator went on to describe a particular first-quarter play from Sunday's game against the New York Jets. Buckner read the protection pre-snap and saw an opportunity. Rather than jump outside and set the edge, the rookie defensive lineman made a move inside. Buckner beat his man through the B-gap (between the guard and tackle) and got to Jets quarterback Bryce Petty.

"DeFo" racked up four quarterback hits in the game, two sacks and a team-high 11 tackles (also a career-high).

"I feel like it was definitely my best game of the season so far," Buckner said. "I'm just getting used to the workload that the coaches gave to me. I'm getting used to the amount of snaps that I'm getting and making the most of them."

Buckner's usage rate can't be understated. The first-round pick was a Day-1 starter, but he's already developed into a cornerstone of O'Neil's defensive gameplan. Part of that has to do with notable injuries. Playmakers and team leaders like NaVorro Bowman, Eric Reid and Arik Armstead are all on Injured Reserve. But much of Buckner's responsibility is a testament to his dedication in the meeting rooms and on the practice field.

The defensive lineman takes rigorous notes as he combs through the gameplan each week. His meticulous preparation has translated into making the type of plays that O'Neil referenced.

"He's just grown so much mentally, and his ability to gather pre-snap information and make plays because of that has been really fun to watch him throughout the year," O'Neil said. "He's had to step into that because of some of the guys that we've lost throughout the year. He's probably had to get into that role a little bit sooner than we anticipated." 

To quantify just how much Buckner has meant to San Francisco's defense, he's played 205 out of a possible 206 snaps over the last three weeks. That's absurd for a defensive lineman battling in the trenches and chasing after the ball play after play.

"It's awesome, isn't it? It's so awesome," O'Neil said, answering his own rhetorical question. "He wants to be out there. There's just no way you can take that guy out."

Buckner is more than willing to accept the lofty expectations that come with the territory of being a top-10 pick. He didn't dismiss the idea of already being a foundation to the franchise's future plans. But Buckner did take the opportunity to share the notoriety and explain that his impressive play hasn't been a solo act.

"(Glenn) Dorsey is taking on double-teams so that I can come free on the back side," Buckner said. "A lot of the guys around me are helping me become that building block."

It's important to temper expectations, as is the case with any young player. Not every game will feature multiple sacks and double-digit tackles. But there's no denying that Buckner's trajectory is an exciting proposition for the 49ers.

"He's done a great job," O'Neil said. "He's making some big-time plays for us right now and that's what you want when you draft a guy seventh overall."

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