In 2016, rookie DeForest Buckner played more snaps than any 49ers defensive lineman, at 1,006. His total was more than double that of Quinton Dial, who was next at 477.
Buckner, in fact, was one of only five 49ers who played 1,000 or more snaps, along with offensive tackle Trent Brown (1,036), guard Zane Beadles (1,036), cornerback Tramaine Brock (1,102) and safety Antoine Bethea (1,127).
Yet in 2017, it’s unlikely that Buckner will be on the field as much.
New 49ers defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina – who previously worked with the New York Giants and Houston Texans – says he believes in using a deeper group of players on the line.
“I’m a rotation guy,” Zgonina told reporters this week during organized team activities (OTAs). “I’m allowed to rotate guys as much as I want and I will do that. I told those guys, ‘You give me four to five plays full-tilt, I’m going to rotate you.’ I believe in fresh bodies all the time. I don’t like to see guys play more than 1,000 snaps in a season.”
In the new defensive scheme of coordinator Robert Saleh, a 4-3 rather than the 3-4 used the past few seasons by the 49ers, figure Buckner also will get more help. The 49ers drafted Solomon Thomas with their top pick, and he’ll play both on the end and at tackle. Veteran Earl Mitchell was brought in as a tackle. Arik Armstead is back healthy at end, and Aaron Lynch and Tank Carradine will fit into the scheme on the edge as well.
Zgonina says the four up front will be constantly changing, with players able to play both end and tackle.
“I’ve told all the guys, ‘You’ve got to know at least two positions just because of the numbers on game day,’ ” he said. “I don’t want to pigeonhole a guy at one spot.”
Buckner had a strong rookie season, collecting 73 tackles with six sacks. Those numbers could improve significantly with a new system and more in-game rest. Plus, he’s more comfortable now with what he’s doing. He’s no longer trying to make the transition from the college to pro game.
“To be honest, last year, my whole thing was about consistency and being able to keep my pad level low and working on my pad level and also my pass rush,” he told Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com this week. “I kind of started off slow during the year. As we played more games, things started to get a lot easier.”