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Why PFF is obsessed with DeForest Buckner

With the 2016 draft season underway, Sam Monson will open up his Analysis Notebook once again to share an in-depth evaluation of one top prospect each week. This week, we’ll explore the strengths, weaknesses and bottom-line scouting report for Oregon defensive end DeForest Buckner. 

There may not be a player in the 2016 draft that PFF has loved more than DeForest Buckner (and if there is, it’s Joey Bosa). Buckner has been one of the most disruptive forces in the nation as a defensive lineman for the Oregon Ducks and has improved in each campaign.

He ended the season as the highest-graded interior defender in the nation — some distance clear of Sheldon Day in second — and his +73.0 is the highest figure we have seen across two years, as he beat Henry Anderson and Leonard Williams from last season out of sight.

We hear about players so good they broke the scale, and if you take a look at Buckner’s game-by-game grades this past season we see that he literally broke the PFF scale when he faced Georgia State.

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Scouts may find things to nitpick over when it comes to his game, but the bottom line is there has been no more productive player in college football in 2015, and he should be one of the very first players selected in the draft.

What he does well

In short, everything. Buckner posted 67 total defensive pressures over the season which was nine more than any other interior player, and 17 more than Leonard Williams managed a year ago. Even when you add edge rushers to the mix that figure is still only bettered by three players this season, one of whom is Bosa.

The word that leaped out at me when I was watching Oregon games a year ago and hasn’t changed is “active.” He is a consistent thorn in an offense’s side even if he isn’t necessarily the most explosive pass-rusher you will come across.

That’s not to say Buckner doesn’t have that quick-impact pressure in his arsenal. Take a look at this move he pulls on TCU’s left guard in the bowl game this season:

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Buckner has the kind of speed and quick power at the line he is often accused of lacking, enough to leave offensive linemen swinging at nothing as he slips past them. He isn’t necessarily the most fluid and natural athlete, but he has the ability to beat players quickly and cause problems.

He also has the raw power and brute force to go right through them. Take a look at what he does to Washington’s right guard for this sack:

Buckner 2

This gets heralded as the one thing Buckner does well, or his greatest strength, but only 11 of his 67 pressures this season were bulrushes. He’s certainly very good at it, but he has a lot more in his arsenal.

Buckner’s pass-rush is probably his strength, but he's a problem in the run game for offenses too. He recorded 36 stops against the run this year, which was fourth among all 3-4 DEs, while his run stop percentage was fifth.

You don’t have to go far into the Oregon State game to see the impact he can have in this area. On just the second play from scrimmage Buckner powers inside the tackle and single-handedly blows up a run play. This is the kind of game-changing ability that can change blocking schemes if done consistently, or cause them major problems all day if it isn’t.

At 6-7 and upwards of 290 pounds, this is a player with prototypical length and size to play 3-4 end in the NFL. As teams become more attacking to match up with pass-oriented offenses, however, we are seeing more teams use players like Buckner as a moveable weapon across the defensive line. The Houston Texans have transitioned JJ Watt – similar in stature – from an interior player to an edge rusher, and the New York Jets have employed Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson as edge rushers this season despite both being natural interior players.

Buckner has the skill set to do similar things, and would be a fascinating option for the Titans at the No. 1 overall pick. If they elect to go elsewhere he could make an impact for most teams in the top 10, with San Diego, Baltimore and San Francisco in particular standing out as natural fits.

What he struggles with

Given the previous section… not much.

Though I invoked the name of JJ Watt earlier, Buckner is not Watt. They may have similar body types, but Watt is significantly more explosive and quick in space. Buckner is more of a Calais Campbell type who is quick and fast enough to win at the line, but won’t run down a mobile quarterback if he sees it coming early enough and gets out of the way.

Despite 67 total pressures this season Buckner “only” had 12 sacks. There were multiple plays throughout the season where he generated quick pressure but couldn’t finish, finding himself outmaneuvered in the backfield by a superior athlete, or simply lacking the burst to close the distance between himself and the quarterback once he had defeated his blocker.

Buckner 3

Take this play against Eastern Washington in the very first week of the season as a good example. Buckner is playing right out on the edge, and though he beats the tackle to the outside almost immediately, there is no urgency with the speed at which he closes on the quarterback and it takes long enough that he has time to step up and deliver an accurate pass before being taken to the ground.

If you compare that to the kind of closing speed Watt displays when he beats a man early – either on the edge or inside – it is a different world. This is part of the reason some are much less sold on him.

The other area of weakness for Buckner is holding up against the double team. If teams get two solid bodies on him at the line he can be blown off the ball with alarming speed. This was a particular problem against Michigan State this year where Jack Conklin and LG Travis Jackson buried him on occasions. Buckner had his wins too, but it is definitely an issue he needs to work on at the next level, especially if he finds himself in a defense that requires him anchoring against two bodies initially before help arrives.

The bottom line

Buckner is the classic example of play-by-play production trumping highlights. There has been no more productive football player in the nation over the last season or two than Buckner. He was a dramatically better player than Arik Armstead on the same defensive line a year ago, and has only improved since. Armstead went 15th overall in the first round last year, perhaps more for his potential than his productivity.

Some are going to focus too heavily on what Buckner can’t do. He won’t run down athletic quarterbacks, he will get blown off the ball at times, and he will leave some plays on the field. But if you instead look at the sheer volume of plays he is disrupting and instead focus on what he can do, then you see a player that deserves to be in the conversation when the Titans are discussing the No. 1 overall pick.

Buckner is a player that can fit in any defensive front and make a huge impact inside, and brings with him the versatility to move around and cause problems. He has consistently proven to be more disruptive than people expect him to be when you tally up all of the plays he makes, and he is one of the very best players in this draft.

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