Uncle Buck: Veteran DT's leadership fuels Colts

Apr. 16—INDIANAPOLIS — In Michael Pittman Jr.'s eyes, teammate DeForest Buckner is close to perfect.

Pittman praised the three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tuesday as a leader of men whose example sets the standard for the entire locker room.

Buckner signed a two-year contract extension with the Indianapolis Colts on Monday and has been a pillar for the franchise since arriving in a 2020 trade with the San Francisco 49ers.

"He's the ultimate team leader. He's taken over that Uncle Phil role," Pittman said. "... (Former Colts quarterback) Philip Rivers was kind of almost like the team dad. But Buck has just kind of taken on that role, where he's just that super vet that everybody just kinda looks to, and he's always doing what needs to be done.

"He's always doing the right thing, and it's almost like he never messes up. It's just like the dude is perfect, I guess. So we all just look to him for advice when we don't know what to do ourselves."

In the telephone game these media sessions can often become, the primary part of that quote that made it back to Buckner was the "team dad" aspect.

The 30-year-old furrowed his brow for a moment, considering the comparison.

But, as with most obstacles in his way, Buckner quickly pushed it aside.

"It's all good," he said with a wide smile. "I guess it's a new role that I have to play. If they need me to play that role, I guess I'm good."

Buckner could have been forgiven for forcing his way out of Indianapolis last season after a 4-12-1 finish left the franchise seemingly facing an extensive rebound.

He also could have been forgiven for simply playing out his contract and testing the free agent waters to see if he might be able to find a role with a team closer to immediate Super Bowl contention.

But those thoughts don't see to have crossed Buckner's mind.

He's been the centerpiece of the Colts' defense since general manager Chris Ballard traded a first-round draft pick to acquire him and signed him to a lucrative four-year deal.

And he's been appreciative of the faith the franchise has placed in him ever since.

Instead of looking for an escape route, Buckner has consistently focused on ways to improve the team.

He's a big fan of the current direction.

"I love the relationships I've built with my teammates," Buckner said. "The way this team is going, I can see it — just the story, what we did last year with all the adversity and the injuries, and just, we were right there, 15 yards away.

"We could have been in the dance, and we just came up short. So just going off of last year and seeing the grit this team had to really keep us to the very end of the season in the playoff picture, it was very encouraging. So it was really easy for me to make that decision (to re-sign)."

There's no question his teammates are fully on board with that decision.

Buckner is one of nearly a dozen players who have re-signed or agreed to contract extensions with Indianapolis this offseason. And the respect level for him within the locker room is such even his fellow team leaders look up to him.

"I'm gonna be honest, man. When it comes to just great men that have been in this building, DeFo is in that class with the Jack Doyles with the (Anthony) Castonzos," linebacker Zaire Franklin said. "With those guys that you could just hang your hat on every day and work, first in, last out — that's the easy stuff to say.

"But, just for myself personally, DeForest is a guy that I follow. He's a guy that checks me. 'Hey, Z, now come on.' If DeFo's yelling at me, that means I better stop talking. He's the guy that we all follow. He's the guy that sets the tone."

That tone heading into the 2024 season is one of urgency.

Indianapolis' bounce-back 2023 campaign fell just short of the playoffs at 9-8.

There's great optimism around the pairing of young quarterback Anthony Richardson and Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Taylor, and a defense that returns virtually intact will look to make a big leap in its third season under coordinator Gus Bradley.

But the message for Buckner as the Colts open offseason workouts is simple. Good enough won't be good enough any more.

"It's time for all of us to take that next step," he said, "to get over that hump and really punch our ticket at the end of the season into the playoffs and really start taking this team to new heights."