DeForest Buckner, A Worthy Pick in the Top Five of the 2016 NFL Draft
Every so often I will watch football games on a Sunday with my father.
My father isn’t a big sports fan, he has never been one over the course of his life. Over recent years he has developed a growing interest in soccer but you could never get him to sit through a whole NFL game. He will wander into the room every so often and watch a handful of plays, not caring for the score or the context that those plays should be viewed in.
Without fail every time, he will inevitably ask me to explain something. Typically it’s the down-and-distance. Explaining that a team has to go 10 yards on four tries isn’t difficult, explaining why is slightly tougher. If it’s not the down-and-distance it’s the positions or the rules or why different positions are allowed to do different things. Sometimes it’s what happens when penalty yardage is assessed or how does punting the ball away work.
It all sounds straight-forward to you if you’ve grown up engrossed in football, but for an Irish man who has no experience with the game, the complexity can be overwhelming.
The complexity of football is one of the main reasons that it hasn’t grown internationally since its conception. That growth has been elevated over recent years but it has taken huge efforts from Roger Goodell. Its growth isn’t natural like soccer. Soccer has spread around the whole world because it’s simple to understand and anyone can play it. The only thing you have to try and figure out is the offside rule and that’s pretty straight forward.
Casually watching football requires some understanding of nuance and education to what is happening. Evaluating individuals, especially when trying to project forward from college to the NFL, pushes the complexity of the sport to a greater height.
Not only do you have to recognize what players are doing on the field but you also have to be able to figure out if what they are doing can translate to a league where the top one percent of athletes reside.
At least, that’s normally how draft analysis works. Sometimes you can overcomplicate draft analysis and miss what is obvious. Sometimes the evaluation is so simple that even my dad could sit down and recognize what is happening in front of his face. When you combine size, athleticism and body control, you’re creating an eye-catching prospect.
When you add in some natural technical ability, you’re creating a prospect who stands out for all the right reasons. That is who DeForest Buckner is.
Buckner is folllowing the path laid out by 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead. Armstead was a huge body who showed off a raw skill set at Oregon before the San Francisco 49ers selected him. Armstead dropped as far as the 17th pick in the first round, but he was a less impressive prospect than Buckner and came out in a more impressive class. Buckner should go in the top five of this year’s class. It would be shocking if he fell out of the top 10.
At the combine, Buckner measured in at 6’7″ and 291 lbs, with long arms and huge hands. He is a moving mountain of athleticism, someone who immediately stands out on the broadcast as he consumes those human sized beings attempting to engage him in blocks.
Height can be a problem for defensive linemen. Being the taller player at the point of contact can cost you leverage. Because of his athleticism and strength, Buckner is able to thrive despite his height.
In the above gif, you can see how he gets low enough to place his hands under the shoulders of the tight end who engages him. Buckner easily wrenches the tight end backwards by planting his feet and exploding upwards before turning him over so that he is forced backwards. The Michigan State offense is pulling a guard towards the running lane inside of Buckner. Buckner has already filled it though.
Most defensive linemen would be satisfied by getting to this point of the play. They have filled the running lane and slowed up the pulling guard. Buckner isn’t. Instead of allowing the pulling guard to knock him backwards or turn the odds in favor of the offense as part of a double team, the defensive lineman absorbs his hit before extending one hand towards each blocker.
He maintains his positioning at the line of scrimmage while the running back is forced to turn outside. Buckner is even able to shed the double team and follow the running back outside.
There are examples of Buckner being washed out of plays against double teams, but that is something that will happen to any defensive lineman who regularly faces double teams. Buckner’s technique is inconsistent but not a major problem. He is the kind of player who will expect to develop a lot more after the draft as he gets to work with NFL coaches.
On this play from the same game against Michigan State, Buckner engages the left tackle and gets his right hand underneath into his chest to throw him sideways.
He beats the blocker one-on-one but can’t take advantage because the tight end hits him as soon as he has forced the tackle inside. Even though Buckner has to reset his feet to regain his balance after that hit, he is still able to shed the block from the left tackle and force his way into the running lane. His tackles the back with the wrong shoulder so he can’t stop him in his tracks, but is able to bring him down after just a few yards.
Considering the attention he received on this play, it was a very impressive one for Buckner. He not only showed off his strength and size, but his body control and balance to redirect and find the football.
Buckner shouldn’t be type cast as solely a two-gapping, 3-4 defensive end, he has so much talent that he could be just as effective in a 4-3 with more one-gap responsibilities. It’s clear that his best fit is in that role though. These types of plays will be hugely valuable from the moment he steps on the field for his new team.
Holding your ground and defeating double teams is hugely valuable, but that alone doesn’t make you worthy of being a first-round pick.
On this play, the left tackle attempts to seal Buckner on a down block as the running back runs off left tackle. The penetration outside from the unblocked linebacker destroyed the play, but Buckner was never going to give it a chance to succeed.
He kept his pad level low enough to get beneath the left tackle before using his right arm to throw him aside. Buckner exerted one swell of strength to get the tackle’s body off of him.
While working through that contact he showed off good feet to reset and maintain his balance. He was never in danger of being moved off his spot and perfectly contorted his body to work back across the face of the tackle. Once Buckner was free, he showed off precise feet and impressive athleticism to close on the running back for the tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
A lot of NFL teams are relying on zone concepts to run the ball nowadays. This puts pressure on defensive linemen to show discipline and comfort moving laterally. Buckner’s size should theoretically make this a problem, but his natural athleticism allows him to control blocks while on the move.
On this play, Buckner shows off quick feet to get on the inside shoulder of the left tackle. From there, he uses his hands to hold the blocker off. He’s patient working across the field so as not to create an obvious cutback lane for the back. From this position, Buckner could comfortably fight back through the blocker to react if the back turns outside.
The one problem with this play is Buckner’s inability to fully disengage and make the tackle. He does force the running back to bounce off of him and redirect towards the middle of the field.
As a pass rusher, Buckner is more advanced than his former teammate Armstead. He needs to learn how to use his hands more consistently and with more variety, but he has plays where he flashes different elements that can be built on.
In the above gif, you can see how Buckner uses his feet in concert with his hands to set up a swim move. His swim move isn’t exceptionally quick or compact, but it’s strong and impactful. Buckner knocks the left tackle to the ground, that left tackle is projected top 16 pick Jack Conklin by the way, without ever really slowing down.
He eventually draws two more blockers before the quarterback gets rid of the ball quickly. Buckner showed off great fluidity to redirect after beating Conklin so he could cut inside the running back and bounce into the recovering center. Had the quarterback been forced to hold the ball, he would have had a chance to reach him.
Buckner’s size will hurt him as a straight bull rusher, but his power combined with his short area quickness and fluidity gives him the potential to be a disruptive interior force. The success of Calais Campbell with the Arizona Cardinals offers the team that drafts Buckner a clear path to follow in his development.