INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner gave a sarcastic chuckle. It was the kind in which you couldn’t tell if he was offended by the question or if it was a sympathetic laugh.
“Yeah, I was pretty good at basketball,” he said matter-of-factly after the chuckle.
When you see Buckner in street clothes, he doesn’t look like a football player. At 6-foot-7 and 295 pounds, his physique is more like that of a power forward than a defensive lineman who tosses aside offensive linemen to get to the quarterback.
Buckner was the Hawai’i Gatorade Player of the Year in basketball in 2012 after averaging 12.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks and winning a state championship during his senior season at Punahou School in Honolulu.
But the thought of pursuing a basketball future ended two years earlier. He suffered an ankle injury on a dunk when he was pushed in the back and landed awkwardly on another player’s ankle. The injury was severe enough that Buckner couldn’t make a trip to the mainland before his junior season to play in an AAU tournament in Las Vegas, where many of the top college basketball coaches would have seen him compete.
“After that, I changed my mind and put my mindset on football more,” Buckner said. “If that injury didn’t happen, I would have seen what happened with basketball and football scholarships. I would have weighed my options on what would have been better long term. But everything happens for a reason.”
Buckner doesn’t dwell on whether he could have been good enough to land a basketball scholarship at one of the top programs in the country. It’s the same way he doesn’t wonder what it would be like if he were still anchoring the middle of the San Francisco 49ers‘ defensive line, trying to help lead them back to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers traded Buckner, 26, to the Colts before the 2020 draft, and he uses that as motivation to help get the “bad taste” out of his mouth. He was in disbelief when instead of landing a lucrative contract extension with San Francisco, the 49ers instead gave his agent permission to look at trade possibilities because there were too many other players on the roster who were in line for extensions.
Buckner got his trade to Indianapolis, immediately landed a four-year, $84 million contract, and has been one of the top interior linemen in the NFL this season, leading a transformation of a defensive line that hasn’t been talked about this much in Indianapolis since Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney were dominating from the edges nearly a decade ago.
The Los Angeles Rams‘ Aaron Donald and the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Chris Jones are widely considered the two best defensive tackles in the NFL, but Buckner belongs on the list somewhere behind them — and not far behind them, either. Buckner is not arrogant or cocky — simply confident — and he didn’t hesitate in saying he considers himself one of the best.
“He’s a complete dog,” Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said. “His presence up front, I don’t think there is a guard one-on-one that can block him. … Then you see him in the pass-rush game, he’s getting pressures after pressures after pressures, so he’s very disruptive in the game as well.”
Leonard, a two-time All-Pro in his third season, is the face of the Colts’ defense. Adding Buckner has made the Colts a defense-first team after so many years ranked in the bottom half of the NFL defensively.
Buckner’s stats don’t jump out as dominant. He has 34 tackles, including six for loss, and 2.5 sacks in eight games. But his 13 quarterback hits rank second among interior defensive linemen. His presence draws double-teams, and that opens things up for Leonard and the rest of his Colts teammates.
“I’ve seen him try to really assert his dominance, to show why he is one of the best D-tackles in the game,” said Colts defensive lineman Sheldon Day, who was also Buckner’s teammate in San Francisco. “I would say he is at a different clip, and I’m excited to see when he hits this stride.”
Buckner believed he’d hit his stride with the 49ers. Playing alongside Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, Buckner was coming off a 2019 season with 7.5 sacks — giving him a total of 19.5 over the past two years. Buckner knew he was in line to be rewarded financially. When San Francisco balked, Indianapolis entered.
General manager Chris Ballard wants his team to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Colts had their plan in place on the offensive line. The defensive line was a different story, especially after the unit wilted late in 2019 following a strong start.
The 49ers and Colts started talking in early March. Ballard was incredibly nervous the trade talks would get out, which could potentially add more suitors into the mix and make it more difficult for the Colts to acquire Buckner. The teams completed the deal — and the contract extension — for Buckner on March 16. In return, the Colts gave up the No. 13 pick in the 2020 draft because they didn’t believe they would be able to select a player who would have the same kind of impact as Buckner.
Ballard was right. But being traded still stung Buckner.
“Any player who wasn’t looking to get traded would feel that way,” Buckner said. “I was drafted by them. Spent four years there and put my heart and soul into the team, the organization and felt like I was playing well. As a player, you think you give everything to an organization, you would think you would get rewarded for it. Unfortunately, they wanted to part ways. At the same time, it’s a business and you have to look at that aspect and not take it personal because the NFL is a business.”
Said Leonard, “When someone gets traded from a team, that’s basically them saying they didn’t believe in you, in my mind. Basically, a slap in their face to say you weren’t good enough and we didn’t want you here. Now it’s more so, ‘I’m about to prove to you guys what should have had, could have had.’”
Buckner’s motor never stops. He said during one of his first media sessions he was going to “piss off” some people in practice because of how hard he goes. That mindset was ingrained in him during his high school playing days in Hawai’i, where he said practices were harder than the games. Fortunately for the Colts, though, having an intense practice wasn’t an issue because guard Quenton Nelson and the rest of his teammates on the offensive line are the same way.
“He brings a certain level of energy to that defensive line that’s contagious,” center Ryan Kelly said. “Obviously, if you look at the guy, I think he is 6-7, 300 pounds. So, when you have that kind of speed and ability — to use his length; it’s hard to block him. I know he is making us better and I hope that we are making him better at the same time. Obviously, I’m excited to have him on our team just to raise the elevation of both sides.”
Buckner had one of those impact plays — and a good laugh in the film session in the following days — that didn’t show up on the stat sheet in Week 2 against Minnesota. He threw Vikings guard Dru Samia to the side like he was tossing a bag to the curb, right before hitting quarterback Kirk Cousins as he got rid of the ball.
“Even in the game, he doesn’t talk much in the game, but he goes out and he’s tossing people around like they have no family, making people look silly,” Leonard said. “He’s by far one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Very genuine. It’s crazy because he’s very disruptive and has a mean streak between the whistles. Once the whistle blows, he’s back to that 6-8, 290-pound sweet little nice guy.”
Buckner might not be having a career season statistically, but don’t be fooled: His presence on the field has been felt in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ system. The Colts are giving up 57 fewer yards per game and nearly 14 yards fewer on the ground.
“He’s a complete player,” Colts coach Frank Reich said. “He is a game-wrecker. Maybe the sack numbers aren’t adding up like some people, but I’m just telling you, this guy is impacting the game. He is getting double-teamed. They know where he’s at at all times.
“Even when he’s getting double-teamed or triple-teamed or whatever the case may be and freeing up other guys, he’s still giving a relentless effort and he’s celebrating the other guys getting some sacks or making plays. Yet, he’s still making his share of plays. This guy, he is everything that you would think he would be and more.”