Although it was a different regime that drafted him No. 7 overall in the 2016 draft, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner had the look of a player who would be with the 49ers for a long, long time.
The 49ers were coming off a Super Bowl appearance, and Buckner was a big reason for the team’s surprising success in 2019.
Buckner’s coaches voted him the winner of the Bill Walsh Award as the team MVP.
But a month after the 49ers’ endured a painful loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, general manager John Lynch opted to trade away Buckner, one of the team's most important players.
The 49ers sent Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
On Sunday, Buckner returns to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to face his former teammates for the first time.
"It really did teach me a lot about the business side of things," Buckner said Wednesday on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. "I felt like I did all the right things on and off the field.
"When you’re drafted to an organization, your initial thoughts are, 'I want to be here until I retire,' but unfortunately it didn’t shake out that way. That’s just the nature of the business. That’s the thing that kind of sucks with the whole salary cap situation."
Buckner played four seasons with the 49ers and was scheduled to earn his fifth-year option salary of $14.36 million in 2020.
Apparently anticipating a difficult negotiation, the 49ers found a trade partner in a team that desperately wanted him.
The 49ers re-signed defensive lineman Arik Armstead to a five-year, $85 million salary, which immediately placed Buckner’s future with the club in doubt.
Indianapolis acquired Buckner and signed him to a four-year, $84 million extension.
Buckner made it sound as if the 49ers did not make a concerted effort toward a long-term union. He said he expressed to Lynch his desire to remain with the organization.
“When I had my conversation with John, I told him, ‘Look, my agent is telling me I’m worth this, but obviously I’m able to meet in the middle,’ ” Buckner said. “Someway, somehow, I want to be here. But I didn’t want to take too big of a pay cut to where I know what I’m actually worth.”
After sending Buckner to Indianapolis, the 49ers traded back one spot, allowing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to select offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs.
The 49ers selected defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw at No. 14 overall to slide into Buckner’s spot along the 49ers’ defensive line.
Then, the 49ers used the fourth-round pick they acquired from the Buccaneers to move up from No. 31 overall to choose wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk at No. 25 overall.
After promising rookie seasons, both Kinlaw and Aiyuk have gotten off to slow starts this year.
Kinlaw has been unable to practice regularly and develop his skills due to a knee condition.
And Aiyuk’s production has diminished through the first five games of the season. Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie. In the first five games this season, he had eight receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Buckner has been as good as advertised for the Colts. He was awarded the team’s MVP last season after he registered 9.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 26 quarterback hits and one safety and helped Indianapolis finish to an 11-5 record. He has two sacks in six games this season.
"I’m very happy where I’m at," he said. "I'm very fortunate that this organization, which is a great organization, looked at my film and saw what I could bring to the table and appreciated me. So that made me feel really good."