SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Fresh off a trip to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, the San Francisco 49ers had a difficult decision to make.
With salary cap room tight and star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner headed into the final year of his contract looking for a big pay day, the Niners dealt the cornerstone of their defense to Indianapolis for a first-round pick in a move that has not turned out well so far.
San Francisco (2-3) goes up against Buckner on Sunday night when the Colts (2-4) come to town for a visit for the first time since a trade general manager John Lynch has called one of his most difficult decisions ever.
“It wasn’t something we were high-fiving or anything over after it happened,” coach Kyle Shanahan. "It came down to, ‘Do you want to pay this amount of money to one guy or do you want to keep two of the guys you already have that you will lose and plus add a 13th pick in the draft?’
"So, it had nothing to do with not valuing Buck or anything like that. ... So, a tough decision we had to make.”
The Colts traded the 13th overall pick for Buckner and immediately gave him an $84 million, four-year contract and he became an All-Pro in his first season in Indianapolis.
Buckner said he wanted to stay and was willing to take a little less to remain with the Niners, but it didn't work out.
“It really did teach me a lot about the business side of things. I felt like I did all the right things on and off the field. Obviously I wanted to be there long term," he said. “When you’re drafted to an organization, your initial thoughts are, ‘I want to be here until I retire,’ but unfortunately it didn’t shake out that way.”
The Niners opted to use a big chunk of the savings on Buckner to retain defensive lineman Arik Armstead with a five-year, $85 million contract. They then used the pick to draft defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
Armstead hasn't played up to the level he had in a breakthrough 2019 season and Kinlaw has been slowed by knee injuries the past two years and has been mostly underwhelming.
The Niners haven't quite replaced Buckner.
“He was the heart and soul when he was here,” safety Jimmie Ward said. “I wasn’t happy about it. But I understand the business side.”
Buckner won’t be the only Indy player having a reunion this weekend.
Colts quarterback Carson Wentz will also get to see 49ers quarterback Trey Lance, another North Dakota State grad. The two developed a friendship before Lance was taken in the first round this year.
“I know him as a person and as a quarterback and as a guy,” Wentz said when asked about Lance. “I have a lot of respect for him, great friend over the years getting to talk to him and see his development there in college. I think he’s got a bright future. He’s in a good system there for his skill set.”
Each of the Bison’s last three quarterbacks -- Lance, Wentz and Los Angeles Chargers backup Easton Stick -- are now in the NFL.
Lance is not expected to play because of a knee injury.
Jimmy Garoppolo should step back in at starting quarterback for the Niners after missing one game before the bye with an injured right calf. Lance started in his place two weeks ago in Arizona but sprained his left knee in that game and will likely miss this week. Garoppolo was able to get healthy and will be back this week.
TURNING IT OVER
Turnovers have played a big part in the Colts’ success over the last several years and that hasn’t changed this season.
Indy’s plus-7 turnover differential is tied for No. 3 in the league, trailing only Buffalo and Arizona. The Colts also have the league’s third-longest active streak of consecutive games with a takeaway (seven) and two-time All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard has four straight games with a takeaway.
“We have a points system on turnovers and he’s leading the defense with like seven points,” Buckner said. “The other guys on the board all have like one or two points. He’s a different cat playing the linebacker position. The ball always finds him or he just finds the ball.”
Colts running back Jonathan Taylor caught the eye of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner a long time ago. When Taylor was a freshman at Wisconsin in 2017, he rushed for 128 yards and a TD against Warner and BYU. The performance left a lasting impression that Warner didn't hesitate when he was asked at the combine who was the best player he faced in college.
“I always said Jonathan Taylor,” Warner said. "He’s for some reason just always stuck my mind and so got a lot of respect for Jonathan. He’s got the breakaway speed. It looks kind of deceptive on tape, but he’s got the breakaway speed. He runs the ball hard. He’s a really good back."
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report
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Josh Dubow, The Associated Press