There was no question the 49ers made the correct selection in 2016 from the moment DeForest Buckner arrived in Santa Clara.
The surprising part is that the union did not last beyond the original four years of his rookie contract.
Buckner will return to Levi’s Stadium this season, more than a year-and-a-half after the shocking trade that sent him to the Indianapolis Colts a couple weeks before his 26th birthday.
The 49ers will play host to the Colts on Oct. 24, as they return from the bye to face a team that appears ready to challenge the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC.
Buckner is a big reason why the Colts appear set up for a strong season.
The Colts benefited greatly from Buckner’s presence in his first season with the organization. He registered 9.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hits and one safety.
Indianapolis finished the season with an 11-5 record, and Buckner was voted the team’s MVP.
And that comes as no surprise to anybody who watched him with the 49ers.
Following the 49ers’ Super Bowl season of 2019, general manager John Lynch had some difficult decisions to make. All along, it was assumed Arik Armstead would sign a lucrative deal elsewhere in free agency and the 49ers would devote their financial resources to lock up Buckner to a long-term deal.
But on the first day of the new league year in 2020, the 49ers signed Armstead to a five-year, $85 million contract, which coincided with the trade that sent Buckner to Indianapolis for the No. 13 overall pick in the draft.
Things worked out about as well as possible for the 49ers, who were pleased to select defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw in the first round to take Buckner’s spot along the defensive line.
But it will be nearly impossible for Kinlaw to give the 49ers everything Buckner supplied.
Buckner is a durable three-down player who is strong against the run and makes everyone on the defense better with his pass rush. He still manages to get to the quarterback despite a steady diet of double-teams, which provides many of his teammates with favorable one-on-one opportunities.
Kinlaw was a two-down player as a rookie, and might never offer the 49ers big numbers as an inside pass-rusher.
The 49ers crunched the numbers and opted to trade away Buckner. He signed a deal with the Colts that pays him $21 million annually. The 49ers have shown this offseason that there are ways to get around salary cap issues.
The 49ers currently have $18.4 million in salary cap space. And if they move on from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo within the next two seasons, that will create approximately $25 million extra in savings.
In 2019, it seemed there were two players in particular the 49ers would do everything in their power to retain on long-term contracts: Buckner and tight end George Kittle.
The organization made the decision to move on from Buckner. Then, they signed Kittle to a long-term extension at the beginning of training camp.
Buckner felt the 49ers could have done more to keep him around.
“I was hoping the 49ers would at least meet me in the middle,” Buckner told The Athletic in November. “I definitely didn’t expect them to trade me. I poured my heart and soul into that organization … to go from 2-14 my first year to build a culture and get to a Super Bowl?
“You just don’t expect to be traded.”
The 49ers made the wise move to trade Buckner out of the NFC. But this season Buckner will return to face his former team.
Buckner often lines up over the right guard, which this season figures to be rookie Aaron Banks for the 49ers. That will certainly be the matchup to watch in this game.
But what always made Buckner so good was his ability to draw attention away from his teammates to open the door for them to excel, too.
The Colts had Buckner’s far-reaching impact in mind in the 2021 NFL Draft. They selected edge rushers Kwity Paye (Michigan) and Dayo Odeyingbo (Vanderbilt) with their top two selections.
Those young players will likely find out what the 49ers know to be a fact: Things are better when Buckner’s on your side.