San Francisco

Niners' Buckner Growing into Elite Defensive Lineman

The second-year defensive tackle is the highest-graded NFL interior defender through the first quarter of the season

In his second season, DeForest Buckner is showing the 49ers – and the rest of the NFL – that he’s a star in the making.

Buckner, the Niners’ No. 1 pick a year ago, is the NFL’s highest-graded defensive interior lineman through the first four games of 2017. When the analytic website Pro Football Focus published its quarter-season All-Pro team, Buckner was one of three players from the winless 49ers who were selected, along with offensive right tackle Trent Brown and special teams ace/running back Raheem Mostert.

Buckner had a strong rookie season in 2016, with 1,006 snaps played, the most of any interior defensive lineman in the league. Though he had some rough spots, Buckner was able to learn from his mistakes while also still being productive. Through four games in 2017, he’s again rarely off the field, leading all players at his position with 248 snaps, or 62 per game.

Pro Football Focus has given Buckner a grade of 93.2 through a quarter of the schedule, which is even better than esteemed veterans such as Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy (92.4), Aaron Donald of the Rams (91.4) and J.J. Watt of the Texans (91.0).

“Buckner has dominated as a pass rusher much more than his single sack total suggests,” writes PFF. “With a sack, nine hits and 13 hurries, his 23 total pressures on 131 pass-rushing snaps has earned him a pass-rushing productivity rating of 13.4, the highest mark at the position among players with at least 75 pass-rushing snaps.”

Buckner’s grade against the run is also strong, No. 13 in the league.

San Francisco’s defensive coordinator Robert Saleh believes Buckner can be an elite pass-rusher as a defensive tackle in the team’s new 4-3 scheme, and that he’s going to have some huge games. His sack total, says Saleh, will be impressive by the end of the season.

“If he keeps doing what he’s doing and he keeps operating the way he is, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to flood the gates open,” said Saleh.

This Sunday may be a good showcase for Buckner, with the 49ers traveling to take on the 1-3 Colts in Indianapolis. The Colts have given up 14 sacks, the fourth-highest total in the league.

Sunday’s game is set to kick off at 10 a.m. in the Bay Area.

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