On the 49ers: Why it’s impossible to grade the offseason before the NFL Draft

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Making declarative statements about an NFL team’s offseason after the first two weeks of free agency is often foolish.

The 49ers recently provided a strong example. This time last year, they were being lauded for upgrading their pass rush with the trade for Dee Ford. But a big question remained: What about the secondary that struggled so badly in 2018? Jason Verrett was the only notable addition to a group many thought needed an overhaul.

But that secondary wound up being just fine in 2019. San Francisco fielded the best pass defense in the NFL while getting good-to-great showings from Richard Sherman, Jimmie Ward, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley. The idea that group would be a liability, as it was the year before, was disproved.


Which brings to mind the DeForest Buckner trade to the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 13 pick in next month’s NFL Draft, the most notable move the 49ers made this offseason. Was it a great trade or a terrible one?

The right answer isn’t particularly stimulating: It’s impossible to know without seeing how the draft plays out.

If the 49ers can land a star, like they did with Nick Bosa last year, the trade would be a home run. Few things are more valuable than getting stars on affordable rookie contracts. Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch learned those types of contributions can be the difference between reaching the Super Bowl and mediocrity. There wasn’t the cap space to pay Buckner and keep the rest of the core intact.

If San Francisco whiffs in the draft, like in 2017 when they took Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster, the decision to move on from Buckner will prove to be a bad one. There’s also pressure on Arik Armstead to maintain his Pro Bowl-caliber play after having a career year during the final season of his contract. He’ll have to do it without the benefit of playing next to Buckner, one of the league’s premier defensive tackles.

The 49ers decided it was better to pay Armstead $17 million per season and get the 13th pick for Buckner than to pay Buckner $21 million a year and get a significantly lesser trade package for Armstead.

The logic is easy to see. Armstead was arguably the better player in 2019 and has more positional versatility. Defensive tackle isn’t considered as premium a position like quarterback, defensive end, cornerback, receiver or offensive tackle. Going with Armstead and having a chance at one of the draft’s top three receivers to replace Emmanuel Sanders is absolutely justifiable.

But what if Armstead doesn’t back up his stellar season? What if CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III are all off the board by the time the 49ers pick? What if the rookie they draft ends up being a nonfactor like Thomas or Foster? What if Buckner’s leadership, durability, production and tone setting prove irreplaceable?

It seems impossible for the 49ers to get back to the Super Bowl under those circumstances. The dominant defensive line was the backbone last season. Having five former first-round picks proved massive, but also a novelty. Having other good players that deserve significant raises made that version of the defensive line unsustainable.


Unless they can move on from Buckner adequately. Maybe it means finding a rookie like Auburn’s Derrick Brown or South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw, who looks like the most Buckner-esque in this year’s draft class. Perhaps they wait until pick No. 31 or later to find someone like Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore, Missouri’s Jordan Elliott or TCU’s Ross Blacklock.

None of those three are near the player Buckner was coming out of Oregon in 2016. He was as surefire a prospect there was. Not even Trent Baalke could miss on Buckner. But Buckner lasted to No. 7 because he played defensive tackle while two quarterbacks (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz), a defensive end (Joey Bosa), cornerback (Jalen Ramseey) and offensive tackle (Ronnie Staley) went earlier. The other was Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Moving on from Buckner puts pressure on the offense and Jimmy Garoppolo. The defense won’t likely be as dominant as last season. Defensive performance, overall, can be volatile year to year. The 49ers might have to get by with a top-10 defense instead of top two, which means Garoppolo will have to elevate his game in his second full season as starter.

It also means Shanahan and Lynch must find ways to replace Sanders, whose arrival coincided with an 18-point rise in Garoppolo’s passer rating during the 10 games following the trade with the Broncos.

There are no surefire answers on the roster. Dante Pettis played his way out of the receiving rotation last season. Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd are promising weapons, in theory, but both missed last season to injuries. Marquise Goodwin is more likely to be off the 49ers opening day roster than on. Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne are the only dependable receivers on the roster, yet much of their production came after Sanders was added to the mix. They’ll have to continue to improve without him.

The 49ers also get a first-place schedule, which means fewer cupcakes than the first half of last season. They will have to travel more, including road games against both New York teams and New England. They won’t be catching teams by surprise like they may have in 2019, when the debate raged two months San Francisco’s viability as a real contender. But the 49ers still project to be one of the top teams in the NFC and are among the favorites to get to the Super Bowl.

So how do we grade the Buckner trade? Truthfully, I don’t know. How about a B?

Ask again in 12 months.


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