Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus fully endorsed DeForest Buckner trade


Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner #99 of the San Francisco 49ers walks out the tunnel before the game against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium on December 21, 2019 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS – The prevailing question ricocheting among the Indianapolis Colts’ personnel brain trust in early March apparently was longer than the answer.

The question: Should we trade the 13th overall pick in the draft to the San Francisco 49ers for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner?

The answer: Hell, yes.

If only all franchise-shaping personnel decisions were as simple.

Chris Ballard, who pulled the trigger on the deal, described it as a “no-brainer.’’

Frank Reich was “100 percent behind it. There was very little doubt or second-guessing about this move from the moment Chris brought it to me. I was all-in on this decision from the very start.’’

That brings us to the man whose area of expertise will be most impacted by the arrival of Buckner, who’s coming off four stellar seasons with the 49ers and just turned 26 in March.

Coordinator Matt Eberflus needed no convincing and offered brief-yet-firm support.

“Frank and I were both in those discussions,’’ Eberflus said during a Monday Zoom conference call. “I had two words: Yes and yes.

“I was excited when (Ballard) started to talk about getting DeForest. There was not any hesitation.’’

None. Zero. Zip.

“From A-to-Z we were like, ‘Yes, and again yes,’’’ Eberflus said.

Of course there were issues that had to be at least casually debated. Is it more prudent to sit on the No. 13 rung and acquire a promising young talent? Maybe an offensive tackle or an edge pass rusher? Let’s not forget the Colts grabbed Dwight Freeney with the 11th overall pick in 2002.

The question was asked over and over.

Stay at 13 and target Player X or Player Y, or make the move for Buckner?

The latter would represent the boldest player move in Ballard’s four-year stint at GM.

“I’m like, ‘Well, at least you know what you’re getting with DeForest, exactly what you’re getting,’’’ Eberflus said, recalling his input at the time. You’re getting a Pro Bowl talent, a high-level player that’s dominated his position.’’

Buckner’s position – the 3-technique tackle – is the most influential in Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme. He attacks, penetrates, disrupts. Historically, think of Warren Sapp and John Randle. More recently, think of Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, Fletcher Cox and Geno Atkins.

The Colts have lacked an interior presence since Booger McFarland in 2006 when they won Super Bowl XLI.

Along with disruptive skills, Buckner brings immense confidence with him to Indy.

“Obviously, they’re looking for a 3-tecnique, and I think I’m one of the best in the league,’’ he said in March. “I can stop the run, rush the passer . . .’’

Buckner isn’t seen as a defensive savior, but definitely is considered a missing piece. He joins end Justin Houston in giving the Colts a pair of difference-makers up front.

“It starts up front,’’ said playmaking Will ‘backer Darius Leonard. “We always say that the d-line is the engine of our defense.’’

Eberflus is more specific.

“The 3-technique is the engine that drives the d-line, and it drives the whole defense,’’ he said, adding there is a “trickle down effect’’ when a team features a formidable defensive line.

“Whenever you have a defensive line . . . that can dominate their spot up front, it’s easier to play linebacker, and it’s easier to play in coverage because everything’s sped up and the line of scrimmage is changing for the run game,’’ Eberflus said.

Houston was one of Ballard’s pricey free-agent acquisitions last offseason – two years, $23 million – and immediately served as the pass-rush catalyst. He amassed a team-high 11 sacks last season, his first with the Colts after eight years in Kansas City. His 89.5 career sacks rank 8th among active players.

And now, Buckner. As part of his relocation to Indy, he was given a four-year extension worth $21 million per year.

That addition – a dominant 3-technique – was at the top of the Colts’ offseason to-do list.

“I thought it was a no-brainer to make that decision and make that player acquisition,’’ Ballard said.

Buckner’s resume is complete. Not only has he been available – he’s missed just one of 64 regular-season starts – but been ultra-productive with 28.5 sacks, including 19.5 the last two seasons, 74 quarterback hits, 38 tackles for loss and 263 total tackles.

Once Ballard and his personnel staff put Buckner’s name on the table for serious consideration, Eberflus began doing his homework. What caught his eye during video review, other than the on-field performance? Buckner always seemed to be on the field.

“What’s amazing to me is what he’s done in terms of playing, the percentage,’’ he said.

The 7th overall pick in 2016, Buckner was on the field 87.3 percent of the time as a rookie (a team-high 1,006 plays). His next three seasons: 76.1 percent, 79.4 percent, 78.7 percent.

“The guy just plays and he loves to play football,’’ Eberflus said.

No sooner had the Colts acquired Buckner than reaction came flowing in.

“Couple of the guys that I know that have been around him contacted us right afterwards and said, ‘You have no idea what you’re getting in terms of a practice player, in terms of a leader and the impact he’s going to have on your football team,’’’ he said.

That was precisely the idea.

“There’s a lot of things that are beneficial in having a really good 3-technique,’’ Eberflus said. “I know that we’ve talked about that as a franchise.

“It starts up front. You’ve got to coach to it, you’ve got to acquire it, and you’ve got to do a great job of just keep putting the resources there, which we’ve done in the past.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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