Jim O'Neil makes case for DeForest Buckner as best defensive rookie

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil doesn't have a vote for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, but if he did, he'd cast it for one of his own.

Niners defensive end DeForest Buckner has been one of O'Neil's most dependable and productive players this season. In fact, a strong argument can be made that Buckner is already the team's best defensive player and the one guy on the roster who looks like a legitimate franchise building block for the future.

"I don’t know how he’s not going to be considered for the defensive rookie of the year," O'Neil said. "If you look at his numbers, compared to every defensive tackle in this league, he's [second in] the NFL in tackles for all defensive tackles. He’s at the top in sacks. He’s played the most plays of any defensive tackle in the NFL. I think he’s done an unbelievable job. And for such a young guy, he’s the ultimate professional and, again, another guy that just loves football. When you get around guys that love football and they want to be around it and they want to grow, they’re easy to coach."

In just 14 games, Buckner has played the second-most snaps among defensive linemen, trailing only New York Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon. Buckner's 71 tackles also rank second among all of the league's defensive linemen, trailing another Giant, defensive tackle Damon Harrison. And his six sacks are fourth among rookies and third among rookie defensive linemen.

Before the season, Buckner set his goals at 70 tackles and six sacks in hopes that would be enough for him to reach another goal, the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He's checked the first two boxes but probably needs to finish with a flourish to get the third.

The competition for the defensive award seems to have a clear favorite in San Diego pass rusher Joey Bosa, who has 9.5 sacks in just 11 games. But there are also plenty of other contenders. Chicago linebacker Leonard Floyd and Jacksonville defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue have seven sacks apiece. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones has also been a consistent force with 102 tackles and three interceptions, while Jaguars defensive back Jalen Ramsey doesn't have eye-popping numbers but has been solid in coverage for most of the season.

Still, Buckner's body of work is worthy of consideration when you look at how he's produced while playing an inordinately high number of snaps for a defensive lineman.

“It’s very rare, especially for a guy that big," O'Neil said. "It’s very, very rare, and that’s one of the things that we really liked about him when we evaluated him off of college tape.”

Even if Buckner doesn't win the award, the Niners can take solace in the fact that their No. 7 overall pick has made steady progress throughout the season. O'Neil pointed to a moment in last week's win against the Los Angeles Rams to illustrate how Buckner is seeing and understanding the game better than he did early in the season.

“His progression’s been awesome," O'Neil said. "You’ve seen the progression of him as far as a pass rusher from the start of the season to now. He actually called his shot on his sack. He radioed up to me, ‘Coach, give me a shot at this guard.’ So, I gave him a four-man front rush on the next third down and he called it. He beat him and got a sack. So that was pretty cool. I mean, a rookie saying, ‘I can beat this guy; on third down, give me a shot at him,’ and we did, and he came through on it."