The Indianapolis Colts got themselves one heck of a player Monday.
At the end of the season, the 49ers coaches got together to select the team MVP, known as the Bill Walsh Award. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was the choice.
Even on a team with George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Richard Sherman, the call to honor Buckner spurred very little debate or second-guessing.
In short, Buckner is everything a team wants. To use the oft-used barometer of the day, he checks all the boxes.
That is why the events of Monday were so shocking.
Buckner was traded to Indianapolis in exchange for the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, a league source confirmed to NBC Sports Bay Area.
In Year 1, 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan decided to release linebacker NaVorro Bowman in the middle of the season.
This had to be an even-more difficult decision because Buckner was such a good player over the past three seasons and big reason the 49ers won the NFC and advanced to the Super Bowl. When the offseason began, he was seen as sharing the distinction of being the 49ers’ top long-term priority with Kittle. Buckner was a centerpiece of the team.
But things changed.
Once the 49ers signed Armstead on Monday to a five-year extension worth up to $85 million, it became obvious Buckner did not have a long-term future with the club. As it turned out, he did not have a short-term future, either.
Armstead is not as consistent as Buckner. He has not been a top-line NFL player for as long as Buckner, even though he entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick from Oregon one year ahead of Buckner.
But, arguably, Armstead is more versatile along the defensive line. And, inarguably, the 49ers had a better chance to lock up Armstead on a multi-year contract that came in at a cost of $4 million a year less than the deal the Colts reached with Buckner to finalize the trade.
The 49ers were not going to be able to keep both players. The 49ers could have tagged Armstead as their franchise player and traded him. But, at best, the 49ers would have been able to get a second-round pick for Armstead. And they still would have faced the difficulty of working out a long-term deal with Buckner.
Perhaps, the 49ers worked behind the scenes to see which deal they could get done first and that would dictate their next move. Or maybe they just decided that signing Armstead at a lower cost than Buckner and picking up another first-round draft pick would give the team what it needed. The 49ers need to re-load and re-stock the roster after falling tantalizingly close of finishing the job in Super Bowl LIV.
Armstead, 26, had his breakout season in 2019. He registered 12 sacks in 19 games, including the postseason. He picked up nine sacks in his first 46 games over four seasons.
Armstead has remained healthy for two consecutive seasons. Armstead, Buckner and Nick Bosa played a large number of snaps last season. How much of Armstead’s production can be attributed to the attention opposing offenses have to give to Buckner and Bosa? That’s difficult to say.
Armstead plays defensive end on base downs and moves to defensive tackle to rush the passer. He will not have Buckner lining up next to him any longer. That’s a big deal.
But it is also a big deal for the 49ers to pick up another first-round draft pick – and, potentially, another immediate starter.
The 49ers can get a top-flight wide receiver. They can bring in a cornerback who can cope with the additional challenge in the NFC West of facing a receiver, such as DeAndre Hopkins, whom the Arizona Cardinals acquired on Monday.
At the end of the first round, the 49ers can address their offensive line. It is not known when they will need to replace left tackle Joe Staley, but it might be best to immediately prepare for that day.
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The Colts will be happy to have Buckner on the field and in their organization.
It was not an easy decision for the 49ers to part ways with Buckner, but it’s one that Lynch and Shanahan obviously believe can help keep the team near the top of the league for a longer period of time.