DeForest Buckner is the closest thing to a consensus pick in this year’s draft. Most of the mock drafts you will find online have Buckner landing with the San Diego Chargers as the third overall pick in the first round of the draft. Picking Buckner at that stage of the draft would be weird.
Taking a defensive lineman that high isn’t unusual, 11 of the past 50 top five picks were defensive linemen. Of those 11, seven were defensive ends, though it should be noted that Tyson Jackson was a heavy defensive end. Most players picked that high in the draft have to already have proven pass-rushing skill sets or the athleticism to project forward as great pass rushers. Most are long, lean athletes with explosiveness to bend the edge and get to the quarterback. That’s not who Buckner is.
Buckner is big, really big. Standing at 6’7″ and 291 lbs, he won’t be exploding off the edge to close on the quarterback. Instead, Buckner is considered an ideal 3-4 defensive end. Someone who can step in immediately and be a run-stuffer while developing his pass-rushing skills. He’s a raw pass rusher but he’s not completely clueless. Taking Buckner that high in the draft would be the Chargers expecting him to develop into a J.J. Watt type of force.
Watt is on a different planet in terms of his effectiveness, but he has proven that pass rushers don’t all have to come off the edge. Watt plays outside a lot and can bend the edge to be effective, but he is just as disruptive when lined up between the tackles. Watt’s success, as well as the relatively successful first season from Arik Armstead in San Francisco last year, has helped keep Buckner’s stock high.
The Chargers should have no concerns if they take Buckner, but an argument could be made that Myles Jack is the better choice. Jalen Ramsey could even be on the board, but it’s much more likely that the choice will be between Jack and Buckner.
Jack is arguably a better player than Buckner and the Chargers do have a hole at inside linebacker. Presuming he is healthy, Jack should also make a greater impact early in his career than Buckner would as he continues to refine his craft as a pass-rusher. That is hugely important for the Chargers, or at least it should be.
Philip Rivers will be 35 before the end of the 2016 season, despite signing a new contract last offseason, his career is dwindling away. He’s still an outstanding player, one of the best in the league, but the signs of his physical decline could be seen last year. The Chargers did little to help him on offense last year, but will hope for health on the offensive line while Travis Benjamin offers an upgrade over the retired Malcom Floyd. If Melvin Gordon could even be an average runner and receiver in the offense that would be a big help too.
With the way the AFC is set up, there is no reason to think the Chargers couldn’t turn from being one of the worst teams in the league to being a contender. They have the quarterback and they have a significant amount of talent on offense if healthy. Adding Brandon Mebane and Casey Hayward to the defense were two smart additions, so one more impact player on that side of the ball could go a long way to catapulting the Chargers back towards where they want to be.
Buckner shouldn’t be a scrub during his first season so this isn’t a case of one player being on the complete opposite end of the spectrum to the other. The Chargers also aren’t in a position where Rivers is likely to fall off a cliff after one more year. They should be emphasizing the short term but can plan for two, maybe even three years of a window. What’s certain is that they need to focus on the defensive side of the ball, help Rivers not by improving the talent around him but by alleviating pressure on the offense as a whole with defensive additions.
One thing that could play into Jack’s favor is the depth of this defensive tackle class. That will come down to whether the Chargers see any of the latter prospects as fits in their defense.