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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Evan Webeck

Big changes are coming to 49ers defensive line � just maybe not the ones you would think

SANTA CLARA, Calif. _ Before they departed for the offseason, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner shared a brief embrace inside the 49ers locker room.

About 64 hours after walking off the field at Hard Rock Stadium as confetti fell on the Super Bowl-champion Chiefs, Armstead, Buckner and the rest of the 49ers were packing up their lockers and going their own ways for the next few months.

Inevitably, for some it will be longer than that. Either way, there will be big life changes coming to the 49ers defensive line.

Buckner and his wife, Ashlyn, are expecting their first baby _ a boy _ in April. Just a few months later, they'll be in attendance at Armstead's wedding. He is marrying his fiancee, Melinda, in June.

While a possible extension for Buckner may be in the 49ers' offseason plans, he has his own priorities: building a nursery.

"That's the big plan right now," Buckner said. "The wife's been getting on me about it. I don't have any excuses now, so I gotta get going."

Whether it's getting married or becoming a father, those off-the-field milestones help put a Super Bowl loss in perspective.

The 49ers met for one final team meeting with the coaching staff. The coaches' message? Use these feelings as fuel to the fire.

They don't have to ask Buckner twice.

On that critical third and 15, as Patrick Mahomes scrambled and backpedaled for what felt like eternity, it was finally Buckner who chased him down. As Mahomes unleashed the game-changing throw downfield to a wide-open Tyreek Hill, Bucker was right there in Mahomes' face, one step away from the sack.

"Coming around the corner, hitting him literally as he throws it and looking up and seeing it complete was probably one of the most gut-wrenching feelings I've had in my career," Buckner said.

He has replayed it over in his head a thousand times. If memory ever fails him, he has a photo saved to his phone showing just how close he came to getting to Mahomes.

"I'm so close," he said, remembering the image. "It's just going to be a picture in my head that I have forever."

Buckner is set to earn $14.3 million in the final year of his rookie deal next year. The 49ers, with about $19 million in cap space entering the offseason, could negotiate a long-term deal to reduce his cap hit for 2020.

Armstead, a Northern California native, is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and should command top-flight money from any team that signs him. He expressed a desire to return to San Francisco but didn't want to speculate.

"I'm not gonna go through a bunch of scenarios in my head, a bunch of what-ifs, until I know what it's going to be," he said. "There's really no point in that. It's gonna take a little time for the team to figure out its decisions and go from there."

Bucker and Armstead have been teammates since their time at the University of Oregon. Their only season apart since 2012 was the year Armstead spent as a rookie with the Niners in 2015 before Buckner was drafted.

Pairing Buckner and Armstead with Nick Bosa and Dee Ford this season, the 49ers defensive line was a force matched by few position groups in football. The defense as a whole put up all-time numbers during the first half of the season and was reignited in the playoffs. Armstead and Bucker combined for 17.5 sacks this regular season, and Buckner added another 1.5 in the Super Bowl. The pair landed four QB hits on Mahomes.

"Even coming up short with the loss, you've just got to look at the season and this team in general," Buckner said. "All the success we had as a unit and how special this group was."

But now the question is: Will they be able to keep it together?

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