Most teams that are seven minutes away from winning the Super Bowl don't make seismic changes during the offseason. They simply tweak some things around the edges and hope running it back leads to a title.
No matter how close the 49ers were to a victory in Super Bowl LIV, general manager John Lynch knew they were going to face some tough decisions this offseason. With cap issues rearing their ugly head, Lynch had to decide between keeping DeForest Buckner -- who had one year left on his contract -- or re-signing Arik Armstead. While he wanted to keep the band together, Lynch knew that wasn't going to be possible.
"I think you always have to take a hard look, when you have success, when you don't have success-how do we get better?" Lynch told The MMQB's Albert Breer. "And that was going to be a challenge for us, because if you look at our roster, both in quality and in quantity, we had a pretty strong group last year. Now, how do you keep that together?"
After talking with Buckner's agent Joel Segal, Lynch realized the 49ers couldn't afford both so he permitted Segal to seek a trade to a team that would give Buckner the payday he had earned.
"We wanted to keep both him and Armstead in the worst way," Lynch said. "And then we had to start looking at every iteration. OK, what if we keep Armstead under the franchise tag and we keep Buckner? We looked at every different way it could work. Our motivation certainly wasn't getting rid of Buckner, because he's one of our best players, and one of our best people. He embodies 49er way."
So the 49ers told Segal to find a trade partner, but it had to net the 49ers a first-round pick. The Indianapolis Colts were more than happy to surrender the No. 13 overall pick for Buckner.
"Not only did he bring back a first-round pick, he brought back the 13th pick," Lynch said. "And then, it's like, ‘Whoa, I didn't think he'd do that.' By that point, you start looking at how we can keep our team together. And I guess a long story short, it's not something we wanted to do, but at a certain point, we felt like that was the best decision."
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The 49ers' run to Super Bowl LIV was built around a dominant defensive line. Buckner, Armstead, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas purchased real estate in the backfield and in the minds of their opponents. Losing Buckner meant carving a massive piece out of a unit that dominated three quarters of Super Bowl LIV.
Lynch knew he had to try and replace some of what Buckner brought to the table if the 49ers were to make it back to the Super Bowl.
"It is a daunting task though-How do you get better, when you're losing one of your better players?" Lynch said. "That's what we set off to do."
Trading Buckner was hard for Lynch, not only because of how talented he is upfront, but also because he embodies everything the 49ers want their players to be.
"It was agonizing, it really was," Lynch told Breer. "It was tremendously agonizing and for a lot of reasons. It's why, as much as anything we're eager to get back, to talk to our players, to let them know. Kyle and I, it's been very important, our word means everything. So when you profess to guys, Hey, you do the things we ask, we're gonna take care of you, and then a guy like DeForest does everything, and you can't take care of him, that's difficult.
"But you get paid to make real tough decisions. And leadership, it's not always the popular decision. It's what you think is the right decision."
With a Buckner-sized hole missing in their defensive line, the 49ers faced another tough decision in the first round of the NFL draft. Sitting at No. 13, the 49ers were shocked to see Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs still on the board. With Joe Staley planning to retire, Wirfs would be an ideal replacement. The only problem was, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw also was available and the 49ers needed to fill Buckner's void.
The 49ers elected to swap picks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, allowing the Bucs to draft Wirfs and sending Kinlaw to the Bay. In the end, the desire to have another formidable defensive line won out and Kinlaw is ideal for what the 49ers want to do.
"By that point, what I'd tell you is, I wouldn't say it was a great deal of confidence, but we knew we were in the Trent Williams thing," Lynch said. "We knew that we'd have a shot. And you start looking, What are some of the reasons we were in the Super Bowl last year? Well, I think when we were right, when we were healthy, we overwhelmed people with our defensive front. And you don't want to lose that, and we lost a key piece of it.
"It was a perfect match for what we ask our D-linemen to do," Lynch said of Kinlaw, "which is tee off and wreck stuff."
The 49ers' offseason of change concluded by selecting wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk at No. 25 and trading for left tackle Trent Williams to replace Staley.
Lynch did his best to navigate the offseason. The losses of Buckner, Staley and Emmanuel Sanders will sting. Not only were they talented players and important voices in the locker room, but Buckner and Staley also were key cornerstones of the franchise's foundation. It's tough to shake off losses like that and expect to cruise back to the Super Bowl.
But that's exactly what Lynch is planning on happening. He knows change is a constant in the NFL, but has seen how one decision can alter the course of a franchise. Letting Buckner go was a move of that magnitude, one Lynch hopes the 49ers don't pay for in the coming seasons.
Time will tell if Lynch made the right call. Championship windows in the NFL open for a second and can be slammed shut for decades. Lynch's moves were made with both the present and the future in mind. Hoping to maximize a championship window created through a smart rebuild focused on dominant line play on both sides of the ball.
The 49ers walked off the field in Miami knowing they let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. Then, Lynch went to work hoping to make sure it wouldn't be his team's last appearance on the biggest stage.
Lynch cast the die when he elected to trade Buckner, shipping out an integral part to the best unit in football last season. The fate of the 2020 49ers, and the length of their championship window rests on the success of that move, and the corresponding ones that followed.
John Lynch discusses DeForest Buckner trade, 49ers' offseason of change originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area