Want a contrast between last year’s 49ers coaching staff and the current one? When defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was piling up plays last season — he ended up with 1,005 defensive snaps — defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was asked if he was concerned with the rookie’s workload.
“No,” he said. “The guys that we think give us the best chance to win, we want them out on the field as much as they possibly can. When they need a blow, we get them a blow. So we get them a break. But for us to win football games, DeForest Buckner has to be out there for 80 percent of the plays.”
O’Neil’s replacement doesn’t think last year’s snap count was merely a concern.
“When you look at a guy like (DeForest) Buckner last year having played almost 1,000 snaps — in my mind, that’s criminal,” Robert Saleh said recently. “Ideally, all of them are working about 500, 600 snaps and trying to utilize everything they’ve got every snap that they’re on the football field.”
Defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina had a similar take.
“I believe in fresh bodies all the time,” he said. “I don’t like to see a guy play over a thousand snaps in a season like he did last year. Especially with a rookie – that’s a lot of snaps.”
Buckner played 100 percent of San Francisco’s snaps in three games, all of them after Dec. 1. He played 90 percent or more in an additional seven contests.
“There were times out there last year where I was dead tired and they wouldn’t take me out,” Buckner said last week. “I feel like I’m hurting the team more staying out there not being able to, you know, live up to my full potential when I’m out there. And if I’m going hard and the coach pulls me out for a play or two to catch my breath so I can get back out there and be more efficient, I’ll definitely take that.”
Last year coaches insisted they’d take Buckner out of the game whenever he tapped the side of his helmet to signal he needed a break. Buckner said he did so once — Nov. 13 vs. the Arizona Cardinals — but it went unnoticed.
“Nobody came in for me so I never did it again,” he said.
In fairness to O’Neil and the 2016 coaching staff, they didn’t have a lot of options. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead never was fully healthy, then went on injured reserve Nov. 8. Glenn Dorsey was returning from an ACL tear and didn’t make his first start until Nov. 13.
After using three draft picks, including No. 3 overall selection Solomon Thomas, on defensive linemen, the new regime has an abundance of defensive linemen and likely will have to cut a fairly prominent player or two.
Last year Buckner ended up playing 87 percent of the 49ers’ defensive plays, by far the most by a rookie linemen. (He did so despite missing an entire game with a foot injury). If Saleh gets his way and his top linemen play, say, 600 snaps, they might end up playing a little more than 60 percent of the defensive plays.
As for veteran Elvis Dumervil, who was signed earlier this month, the ideal plan for him would be to enter contests as a defensive end on obvious passing downs.
“For him, if you were going to pinpoint it, if he had 450 snaps on the year, you’d hope it was 90 percent pass,” Saleh said.