Late last season, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said the stats lie when it comes to defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
At the time, in December, Buckner had just three sacks and had been in on 60 tackles. But Saleh said Buckner had improved significantly since his rookie season of 2016 when he had six sacks.
“I think he’s one of the best in all of football,” Saleh told reporters. “He’d be one of the best for every single team in football. Not trying to sugarcoat it for him. He is dominant in every facet of football. The scary part is he can still get better with pad level, he can still get better with hands, he can still get better at creating edges in pass rush. But as far as where he’s at now for a second-year player, as young as he is, knock on wood, the durability, he’s unique. He’s special.”
Now Buckner himself is saying that as he works toward his third year in 2018, he wants to reach a much higher level of play.
In 2017, Buckner led NFL defensive linemen with 19 quarterback hits. In 2018, he’d like a lot of those hits to be sacks.
“If I had that extra step, it definitely would have been 19 sacks or something,” Buckner told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee this week. Buckner says he is trying to improve his footwork and lower-body strength this offseason to help get him more quickly to quarterbacks.
“I had too many ‘almosts,’ you know?” he said. “And I’m really trying to find that extra step in my game.”
Buckner and last year’s No. 1 pick, Solomon Thomas, are expected to line up at defensive tackles this season and provide pressure up the middle. Pressure from the outside will come – it is hoped – from a variety of edge defenders, including Cassius Marsh, Jeremiah Attaochu, Arik Armstead and a rookie from the draft.
Buckner told Barrows he’s working out this offseason with teammates Ronald Blair, Eli Harold and Erik Magnuson.
If Buckner can add that extra quickness to his pass rush, the sack total should rise and he could wind up a Pro Bowler in 2018, though Saleh has said that’s not Buckner’s focus.
“I think Buck has bigger goals in mind in terms of what he’s trying to accomplish as an individual,” Saleh said. “The Pro Bowl, it’s a nice reward I guess, but it’s not something that I’m sure defines him.”