Circle complete as Colts’ DeForest Buckner prepares for meeting with 49ers

Sports

Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) warms up on the field before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s just another game on the schedule. The next one. One of 17.

That was mentioned to DeForest Buckner, and the widening smile was an expected precursor for his response. So was the chuckle.

“It’s a little personal,’’ he said. “If you want to say it, I guess, yeah.’’

Yeah, we want to say it.

Sunday night, Buckner’s new team, the Indianapolis Colts, share the primetime stage at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara with his old team, the San Francisco 49ers.

The veteran defensive tackle admitted there’s been little back-and-forth on cell phones or texts this week with his former teammates. There will be ample time prior to the game and afterwards for hugs and those “How’s the family doing?’’ conversations.

“They’ve got a game to focus on and I’ve got a game to focus on,’’ Buckner said Wednesday. “Both sides got business to handle.’’

And it was the cold, calculated business side of the NFL that has a West Coast reunion looming.

Buckner was the 49ers’ first-round pick in 2016, the 7th overall selection. He more than exceeded expectations by starting 63 of 64 regular season games as their influential 3-technique tackle – 28.5 sacks, 74 quarterback hits, 38 tackles for loss – and being their best defensive player in the 31-20 loss to Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV.

“Watched it multiple times,’’ he said. “It’s definitely a game I’ll never forget.’’

Buckner didn’t know it at the time, but it would be his last game for San Francisco. Six weeks later, he was headed to Indy.

The 49ers valued Buckner, who was entering the final year of his rookie contract and due a base salary of $12.4 million, but prioritized edge rusher Arik Armstead. They gave Armstead a five-year, $85 million extension and traded Buckner to the Colts, receiving the 13th overall pick in the 2020 draft in return.

General manager Chris Ballard reinforced his commitment to Buckner by signing him to a four-year, $84 million extension.

“We knew we needed a 3-technique, a dominant 3-technique,’’ Ballard said at the time. “I thought it was a no-brainer to make that decision.’’

A business move, albeit a seemingly odd one considering the player involved, his position and his expertise at that position. Buckner had been voted to one Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro in 2019. He was 25.

“It’s the nature of the business,’’ he said. “It’s what we signed up for, right?’’

And now Sunday, where it all began.

“It’s kind of coming full circle, I guess. You know what I mean?’’ Buckner said. “Definitely don’t know how I’m going to feel when I get out there, get on the field. It’s probably going to have a mix of emotions.

“That’s where I started my family, out there. That’s where I got the opportunity to play this game on the highest level possible. They drafted me. I poured my heart and soul out in that organization for four years that I was there. It’s going to be interesting.’’

Shortly after the trade, Buckner admitted it “hurt’’ that the 49ers considered him expendable. They used the first-round pick obtained from the Colts to bring his replacement, Javon Kinlaw.

“I’m past that,’’ Buckner said. “It was early on, for sure. I kind of shifted that mindset to I’m going to prove to the Indianapolis Colts why they paid me. I’m going to do everything in my power, I’m going to pour my heart and soul into this organization and show them why they made the decision to pick me.’’

Buckner’s impact with the Colts was immediate and his interior presence has been undeniable.

In 21 games, he’s piled up 11.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss. His 9.5 sacks last season were a team-high and franchise record for a defensive tackle.

The rest of the NFL took notice. He was named first-team All-Pro, and was just the third Colts’ d-tackle to be similarly honored, joining Gene Lipscomb (1958-59) and Art Donovan (1954-57).

“Last year was pretty freaking awesome,’’ Ballard said recently. “First year in the scheme and he’s in unbelievable shape, even better than he was last year.

“I think the sky’s the limit. I mean, I do. I think he’s got Defensive Player of the Year capabilities, I do.’’

Buckner has yet to enjoy a breakout game this season, but shares the team lead with 2 sacks and has a team-high six QB hits. He also has 28 tackles – most among d-linemen – and three tackles for loss.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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