General manager John Lynch repeatedly spoke about the need to find foundational players for the 49ers prior to the 2020 NFL Draft, and now looking back just a few days, it makes even more sense.
When both Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan first arrived in Santa Clara in February 2017, there was no arguing that the franchise was struggling. Shanahan was the fourth head coach in as many seasons and Lynch was now in charge of rebuilding a mostly underperforming roster.
Now, two important pieces that helped the new regime make the trip to Miami, Fla., for Super Bowl LIV just three years later, are no longer with the team: Joe Staley and DeForest Buckner.
What both Staley and Buckner meant to Shanahan and Lynch is immeasurable. Constants in the locker room as well as on the field, the two Pro Bowl players bought into what the new leadership was selling even through the adversity of two brutally challenging seasons.
“So important,” Shanahan said Saturday after the conclusion of the draft. “We looked back from when we first got here and Joe Staley, DeForest Buckner, those guys were as strong and good of veterans as anyone I've been around. Those are two guys that we don't have this year.”
The 49ers attempted to fill the voids left by Buckner and Staley by drafting South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and acquiring seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams in a trade with Washington.
Kinlaw and Williams’ talents will have an immediate impact on the field, but what Staley and Bucker did to keep the locker room stable is invaluable. When the team only won 10 games in two seasons, the veterans never wavered.
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“What they've meant to me personally in the three years I've been here and how much they've helped me as a first-time head coach,” Shanahan said, “starting out 0-9 and being able to get through some of that, going 4-12 my second year as a head coach.
“When you have guys that are the people, like Staley and like Buckner, but also the players and those guys believe in you as a coach. If I don't have guys like that, it's hard to get through stuff like that because adversity is tough for everyone and you need good people at the positions that are good."
There is no doubt that the 49ers have built a uniquely solid locker room. Several veterans that have spent time with other franchises have spoken about how unique the mood is at 4949 Marie DeBartolo Way.
Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk spent four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before joining the 49ers and was sincerely surprised how close the locker room was, especially considering the adversity it faced when he arrived.
“I think it’s a testament to the culture that Kyle and John have built,” Juszczyk said in November. “Guys that have been in other locker rooms, and get to see it, it’s like ‘Wow.’ You really appreciate it. It reassures what we already know, that we are a close group.”
Now the foundation of the team will need a little restructuring, but not because there is a lack of leadership. First-Team All Pro George Kittle was voted a team captain in his sophomore season and fellow First-Team All Pro Richard Sherman is a valued mentor. Both are leaders on and off the field.
What was unique about Staley and Buckner was their combined 17 total seasons with the 49ers. Jimmie Ward now is the longest tenured member of the 49ers with six seasons under his belt.
“That’s one of the things I think, me personally, I was most fortunate to have when I got here,” Shanahan said. “Because I know John and I came into a tough position at first, just where we were record-wise and the overall roster.
“When your best players are like Joe Staley and Buckner, that's what allows you to weather a storm like we did and have a turnaround that we're extremely proud of.”