Every year, the NFL draft offers teams the chance to find impact players who can help change the course of the franchise. Loading up on these special individuals creates opportunities for themselves and teammates because of their unique traits.
One of the best prospects in the 2016 NFL draft class is Oregon defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. The 6’7”, 300-pound mammoth was a dominant and versatile playmaker along the Ducks' defensive front the last two seasons. His transition to the NFL will be one of the easier ones from this class.
Recent draft classes have provided several early defensive line contributors: Leonard Williams in 2015, Aaron Donald in 2014, Ezekiel Ansah in 2013 and many more. The film that Buckner has produced over the last two seasons points to him being a bona fide top-10 pick like the aforementioned group.
Before making bold proclamations about Buckner, we need to look at his achievements and background. The enormous Honolulu, Hawaii, native was a 4-star prospect who was recruited by a dozen of the best schools in the nation. He was part of a class that also featured 2015 first-round pick Arik Armstead, 2013 first-round pick Kyle Long and other prospects like Byron Marshall and Bralon Addison.
As good as some of those players were for the Ducks, Buckner has a better resume and film to back it.
The 2015 Pac-12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year had a senior season as big as his frame. Buckner ranked second on the team with 83 tackles and was first with 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. It was his fourth consecutive season where his production improved.
Buckner was also first-team All-America and All-Pac-12. He capped off the season with the Morris Trophy award.
This happened despite the team around him struggling to replicate the success it had in previous seasons. Buckner had to do more on his own since the talent around him lessened. His response couldn’t have been better in this situation.
While it’s easy to look at Buckner’s frame and worry about whether that’s the only reason he’s winning, his tape shows a dangerous and versatile player. Playing at Oregon allowed Buckner to be exposed to playing 5-technique in a 3-4 front and 3-technique in a 4-3 front.
Former Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum preferred to rush three on a majority of passing plays. This pigeonholed Buckner because he rarely had help as a pass-rusher. But it did allow him to show off his elite run-defending talent.
Being large and having great length is highly advantageous if it’s used correctly. At 6’7”, Buckner plays high because he really doesn’t have a choice; anatomically, he can’t play much lower. Buckner compensates with his Hulk-like upper body strength.
It is difficult to move Buckner off his spot when he lines up as a 3-4 end. His consistency creating space between him and his blocker is difficult to stop because of his extension and sheer strength. Even when he’s not creating force with his lower body he’s able to shed a block and play the ball.
The play above highlights what is constantly littered throughout Buckner’s film. What makes Buckner different than most 3-4 ends isn’t just the physicality of his play style; that’s to be expected from the position. It’s what Buckner does after he gets free from the block. He finishes the play with a tackle for loss in space.
Humans at his size shouldn’t move as well as he does. Yet Oregon often limited Buckner to stay true to its scheme. If it had unleashed him by getting him more single blocks, he’d have surely been even more productive.
Whether Buckner is asked to be a pass-rusher or run defender in a 3-4 front, he’s a low-risk, high-reward player. As a weak-side defender, he will often be playing a finesse left tackle as opposed to a power right tackle. While some NFL teams are getting away from that archetype, many still subscribe to the “strong side must be the run side” roster-building strategy.
This leaves left tackles being athletic but lacking lead in their pants. That’s excellent for Buckner, who has an upward swooping motion with his attack due to his length. Again, this isn’t a negative, but more of a function of his frame. He has a trump card similar to how Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals has learned to win.
When Buckner was given outside protection that forced offenses to leave their left tackle on an island, he flashed better pass-rushing skills than when it was a three-man rush. He was able to formulate and execute a plan of attack more effectively because he could rely on his athleticism more. Below, he swims past Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin en route to a quarterback hurry.
It’s important to see flashes like this from Buckner since he was rarely in these situations.
Make no mistake about it, he is an elite run defender already at this point in his development. His strength at the point of attack and ability to shed blocks when the ball-carrier nears is parallel to 2015 star Leonard Williams, who also had an uncanny ability to sniff out where plays were heading.
But it’s Buckner's pass rushing that will separate him from being a Pro Bowl star and not just a gap-eater.
Fortunately for 4-3 defenses that need help, Buckner can step into their base defense and provide plenty of support. Versatility is a major positive for Buckner since he might be a better 4-3 3-technique than he is a 3-4 end.
Being at 3-technique allows Buckner to face a guard, who has less length than a tackle. This creates the opportunity for Buckner to be a speed- or pass-rusher without having to deal with the extra space. In a phone booth, Buckner is an absolute nightmare to guard.
We didn’t see Buckner slide inside too often, but he was vicious when unleashed. His ability to bull rush is one of his biggest positives and projects well to the next level. He consistently shows quick but powerful hands that land inside the chest of the blocker.
Once he gets his hands in place, he can manipulate where the blocker will be tossed with his extension. When combined with his quickness, he can completely disrupt how an offense operates.
Sometimes, the versatility tag is applied to players in an attempt to characterize the player lining up at multiple positions. While that can be accurate, true versatility only applies when an individual can be successful at multiple spots. Simply aligning in different positions is worthless if production isn’t coming at each spot.
Buckner certainly has the versatility to excel in whichever scheme he’s drafted for. He’s a good athlete in short spaces and seems to catch blockers off guard with his quick feet. His rapid weight transfer on plays like the one below just isn’t normal for men his size.
Most of what Buckner does is positive, but he has some areas to improve as he enters the NFL.
His matchup with Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker was the best opportunity to see two great prospects go head-to-head. Decker was the best blocker Buckner faced, albeit it was in his junior season.
Decker got the best of Buckner on the limited snaps they saw each other. Buckner’s inability to use speed moves to the outside shoulder of the tackle was on display when he tried.
Even on a play where Buckner originally failed with his attack, he did end up forcing Decker to reset his feet several times with his power toward the play’s completion. This adjustment was smart and showed the ability to counter despite losing the snap overall.
A second key matchup between the two came on a modified speed-dart play to Buckner’s side. Decker takes a strong zone step to the right and catches Buckner drifting inside, which puts pressure on the weak-side linebacker behind Buckner to make the right read. He doesn’t, instead floating to the pitch man.
Regardless of what else went wrong for Oregon on the play, Buckner was caught off-balance when he recognized the play developing. His shoulders were no longer aligned with the line of scrimmage since his base had been compromised.
The only major knock on Buckner is his ability to handle double-teams. At times, his legs will get skinny when he tries to anchor. He doesn’t have the functional strength to simply reset with his lower body yet, and that issue is compounded when his shoulders aren’t square when he embraces contact.
NFL offenses may target Buckner with this early in his career, but it’s not like handling double-teams is easy for anyone. If execution is solid around the double-team or if Buckner can even stand his own ground decently, then a defensive unit can certainly survive that weakness.
Projecting Buckner to the NFL, he is a versatile and well-rounded defensive lineman. His size and raw power are tremendous positives and will instantly allow him to start in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. He can be impactful as a run-stuffer or pass-rusher.
Although Buckner is not a twitched-up athlete who regularly wins off the snap or shows flexibility, he is an above-average athlete on film. When we put the total package of length, power and quickness together, Buckner has enough upside to be a good long-term starter.
Comparisons for Buckner can be difficult because of his size. Calais Campbell is the most similar physically and is likely the high-end side of his ability. The low-end comparison is San Diego’s Corey Liuget, who is also a solid player.
Not everything Buckner does is elite or especially noteworthy when isolated. He is high-functioning in a team role and showed flashes of excellence when he was given the chance to create on his own. His lack of certain physical traits like suddenness and flexibility somewhat limits his upside, but his floor is high and his ceiling still considerably good.
In the 2016 class, Buckner should be a top-10 pick. He’s a safe prospect with his ability to play at a high level as a rookie. Buckner plays with brutality and a high motor at a premium position. His unique skills and versatility shouldn’t be taken for granted.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.