As is often the case for trades around football, the other side of the hedge proves less fruitful than the original one. For Indianapolis Colts’ defensive captain and All-Pro defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, it was a forced jump, and the repercussions of his move have left him uninvolved and on an island early in his second season in Indianapolis.
A former top-10 selection out of Oregon a handful of seasons ago, Buckner was everything and more for the San Francisco 49ers’ dominant front. A 15-game starter in his first season, Buckner wasted little time adding his name to stat sheet, totaling six sacks, 73 tackles, seven TFLs, and two fumble recoveries in his first year as a pro. He only improved as the seasons wore on, totaling 15 sacks the next two seasons combined, highlighted by a Pro Bowl nod in 2018. Following the 2019 season, however, Buckner’s stance as one of San Francisco's cornerstone defenders became null, as San Francisco shipped off their 25-year old defensive lineman to Indianapolis for the No. 13 overall selection in the 2020 Draft (traded to Tampa Bay). A move that shocked the NFL landscape due to his consistency and leadership inside the walls of the 49ers’ facility, desperate times called for desperate measures, and the 49ers found themselves cap-strapped with little wiggle room heading into the spring of 2020, ultimately leading to his departure.
His first season in Indianapolis was everything general manager Chris Ballard hoped it would be. Fortuitous, dominant, consistent, Buckner was everywhere for a Colts defense that progressed into one of football's most feared units. Coupled with Darius Leonard, he and Buckner proved to be a menacing tandem to block within Indianapolis’ front seven. With 14 starts in which he recorded 9.5 sacks, totaling a career-high 26 QB hits, Buckner was as unblockable a force as there was in football, resulting in his first All-Pro selection.
2021 has been different. Much different.
While many things can be attributed to a lack of punch (to say the least) from Buckner through the Colts’ first six weeks, he’s been irrelevant along the Indianapolis front. Coming off his aforementioned All-Pro season with high expectations both individually, and as a unit for a group expected to compete for the division crown, his four quarterback hurries and minimal impact in limiting the run game has raised questions toward his desire early this fall. On pace to match his career-lows in all major categories, Buckner has faced increased attention this fall, but the elite find ways to stay elite, and when you dive into the film, he’s been nothing more than a body to block thus far. With a higher percentage of double and triple teams through six weeks, a drop in production could be warranted, but film doesn’t lie, and it’s revealed a product in Buckner that has been ineffective even when he’s presented a lone blocker.
“Eventually I get it started,” Buckner said. “Sometimes I go through it at some points throughout the season where I’m maybe just thinking too much or things like that.”
After a slow first five games, Week 6 was looked upon as a get-right game for Buckner against the lowly Houston Texans. While the Colts dominated in all phases of the football game in a 31-3 drubbing of the AFC South’s basement occupant, Buckner’s game provided the zest head coach Frank Reich so desperately desires from his All-Pro defensive anchor. He was active in the pass rush recording his second sack of the year, he totaled two TFLs (multiplying his total through the first five weeks) and a QB hit on just 71% of the defensive snaps, a season low.
A premier defensive talent, Buckner has all the makings of one of the league’s truly unblockable presences. An elite athlete wrapped within a stout 6-foot-7 frame, Buckner’s lack of pop through six weeks has raised eyebrows. However, with back-to-back matchups against the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars on the horizon, Buckner’s lack of production should soon become an afterthought once he kicks into gear.
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