As the free agency frenzy was whipping up around the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers made major moves involving two of their own players. First, they signed former first-round defensive end Arik Armstead to a five-year, $85 million contract. They followed that contract extension up by trading another former first-round pick, DeForest Buckner, to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th overall pick in 2020. Following that trade, Buckner signed his own four-year, $84 million contract extension in Indianapolis.
Coming off the back of being voted the 49ers MVP in 2020 season, Buckner will be looking to continue what has been a reasonably strong start to his career. Through the first four years, he has 263 tackles, 74 QB hits, 28.5 sacks, 11 passes deflected, three forced fumbles and an impressive seven fumble recoveries.
While he has been a consistent contributor in terms of tackles, his disruptive force has really been felt in the past two seasons. 19.5 of his sacks, two of his forced fumbles and four of his fumble recoveries have come in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. With Buckner seeming to be in the peak of his career right now, let’s take a look at the trade, Buckner’s extension, and how it breaks down for the Colts.[sv slug=mocksim]
A trade that makes sense for both sides?
It is not often that you look at a trade and think it makes sense for both sides, but this might be one of them. From the 49ers’ point of view, giving up your team MVP from the previous season when you are attempting to go back to the Super Bowl may seem an odd decision. However, the 49ers defensive line has a lot of talent, and strength in depth. Therefore, the 49ers have traded from a position of strength to ensure they have two first-round picks in 2020, giving them a chance to add players who can contribute next season and into the future. With the large contract that had been handed out to Armstead, retaining Buckner for the long run was always going to be difficult.
As for the Colts, this trade was an indication that this team believes it can win in 2020. They followed this deal up by adding Philip Rivers on a one-year contract, further suggesting that they believe 2020 could be their season. The main reason this contract makes sense is that the Colts have essentially assured they have an immediate difference-maker in the front four of their defense. With pick 13, they were not guaranteed to get that, and while this has cost them more in terms of their salary cap, they had the space to make this move, and Buckner is as close to a sure thing as it comes.
A big contract for an impressive player
To give you an idea of how impressive Buckner has been, his 2018 and 2019 season would both rank inside the top-15 among defensive tackles in terms of sacks. His 2018 season ranks joint-third at the position, tied with Aaron Donald’s 2019 season, and behind only Donald’s 2018 20-sack season and Chris Jones’s 15.5 sacks from the same season. Buckner is behind just Jones and Donald when it comes to total sacks across the past two seasons. Accordingly, Buckner is now the second-highest paid interior defensive lineman in terms of average annual salary, behind only the aforementioned Donald.
His ability to disrupt opponents has rightly earned him that massive deal from the Colts. Of the $84 million, Mike Florio from Pro Football Talk reported that $39.378 is guaranteed at signing, including $27 million in roster bonuses in 2020 and 2021, as well as a fully guaranteed $12.378 million in salary in 2020.
While that may seem like a lot of money, the Colts have designed the contract smartly. By not making any of the money a signing bonus, they do not pro-rata any money onto future salary cap years, meaning that they can move on from Buckner at any point after the first season with relatively little impact on their cap space.
A contract with multiple exit strategies
The Colts can get out from under this contract at any point following the end of the 2020 season. However, if they decide to cut bait after that 2020 season, then the 2021 cap hit will be a relatively big one at $16 million, due to the guaranteed roster bonus. The reason they may decide to move on after that first year is that on the fifth day of the 2021 season, Buckner’s 2021 base salary and 2022 roster bonus become guaranteed.
Usually, a contract trigger like this one would present a big decision for a franchise, as the Titans will have with Ryan Tannehill, but not for the Colts. With a $16 million fully guaranteed roster bonus in 2021, Buckner’s base salary is just $1 million. Combine that with the Colts switching where Buckner’s money is paid from 2022 onwards and that 2021 trigger only guarantees Buckner a further $6 million.
From the third season onwards, nearly all of the money in Buckner’s contract is in non-guaranteed base salary. That means that the Colts can move on from Buckner during the offseason at any point following the 2021 season and their max cap hit would be $6 million. In contrast, moving on could save them totals of $11 million in 2022, $18.75 million in 2023 and $20.25 million in 2023. Those are potentially huge sums of money being left on the table if Buckner is released by the Colts after the second year of his deal.
A couple of weeks ago we discussed the intelligent way the Miami Dolphins had structured their cornerback contracts. Well, the Colts may have trumped that with this contract given to Buckner. The Colts have demonstrated they are all in this season, signing Philip Rivers to that one-year deal. But if that does not work out and they have to consider hitting the reset button, the Buckner contract is easy for them to shed.
This deal essentially breaks down as a two-year, $45 million contract, with three team options tagged onto the back of it. Additionally, with no signing bonus, the contract is relatively easy for the Colts to trade, with no dead cap accelerating onto the cap of the trade year.
Additionally, they can sell any potential trade partner on the flexibility this contract will offer, potentially allowing them to recoup some of the value they have given up in acquiring Buckner with a first-round pick. If the NFL world did not already realize that Colts General Manager Chris Ballard is a clever operator, this deal should confirm it for them.