INDIANAPOLIS — On March 17, 2018, the Indianapolis Colts sent the No. 3-overall pick in that year's NFL Draft to the New York Jets in exchange for the No. 6 pick and three second-round selections — two in 2018, and one in 2019.
The Jets would eventually take quarterback Sam Darnold at No. 3-overall, while the Colts would turn their haul, after a little bit more wheeling and dealing, into guard Quenton Nelson, tackle Braden Smith, defensive end Kemoko Turay, running back Jordan Wilkins and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.
Nelson is now a two-time First-Team All-Pro selection at left guard, Smith has been a solid two-year starter at right tackle, Turay was Pro Football Focus' top-graded pass rusher in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury, Wilkins sports a 5.8 yards-per-carry average over two seasons and Ya-Sin started 13 games at cornerback for the Colts in 2019 and his arrow is pointing up.
On March 18, 2020 — exactly two years and one day after that mega trade with the Jets — general manager Chris Ballard and the Colts, possessing another valuable first-round pick, this time at No. 13 overall, made another massive move.
Indy sent the 13th-overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for DeForest Buckner, one of the top, young defensive tackles in the league; the Colts then immediately signed Buckner to a reported four-year contract extension.
Buckner, who just turned 26, has been an absolute monster since entering the league as the seventh-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, collecting 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. He also has one fumble recovery for a touchdown and six career multiple-sack games.
Buckner had a career-best 12 sacks in 2018 and was selected to his first-career Pro Bowl; in 2019, he was named Second-Team All-Pro and helped lead the 49ers all the way to Super Bowl LIV.
Buckner fills an immediate need at defensive tackle for the Colts, who have been searching for a dominant presence to take over at the three-tech spot, which is one of the cornerstone positions in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' 4-3 scheme.
But it's Buckner's overall approach — from his style of play in games, how he attacks practices, his presence in the locker room and his devotion to the community — that ultimately made that 13th-overall pick expendable, Ballard said in a recent sit-down with Colts.com. Here's that Buckner conversation in its entirety:
How did the DeForest Buckner deal come about?
Ballard: "When you have an opportunity to acquire what you think is an elite player at a premium position, who's just turning 26 years old, still has three-plus years of high-level play, who's a unique, physical talent — plus a unique individual in terms of his character — we thought it was a great move for us. You know, most of the time when you acquire elite players they're usually on the down side of their careers; you don't get an opportunity to get them. And if it happens in free agency there's usually a reason they're hitting the market. So we just saw a unique opportunity. The 13th pick was a lot, but we think his play, both on the field and what he's going to bring to the locker room, warranted the 13th pick of the draft."
What stands out about Buckner that Colts fans will recognize right away?
Ballard: "He's a unique, physical talent, and he disrupts the line of scrimmage — and he's been productive throughout his career. In the last two years if you count the playoffs it's 22 sacks. And then the unique thing: he played over 90 percent of the snaps. I mean, that is rare in this league up front. And his effort level, when you put the tape on, you never seen a down play where you see lack of effort. It is a high motor, all the time, playing as fast as he can and as hard as he can, and that's infectious to a defense — that's infectious to a team. And then when one of your better players on your team practices and plays like that, it makes life a lot easier, 'cause the locker room will follow."
Is Buckner the type of guy you were talking about that can come in and cause some healthy "friction" in the locker room?
Ballard: "I think DeForest's very humble, to a point to where I think he'll earn it first, even though he's got skins on the wall in the league. One good thing about our team right now and our locker room: we've got a great locker room. I mean, good guys, workers, and we'll just continue to add guys to that. And I think adding DeForest just adds another young talented player with high character that we want to build this thing on."