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Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner rushes from the edge against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 3 in Indianapolis.

DeForest Buckner was a first-team All-Pro for the first time in 2020, but there’s already evidence the Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle could be better this year.

A game-changing force on the field in the all-important three-technique role in the middle of the defensive line, Buckner’s also becoming a more forceful voice in the locker room. It’s a role he’s naturally suited for and one limited to some extent last season by the pandemic.

It’s also necessary. The departures of defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry created a void of veteran leadership on the defensive line. Buckner is uniquely positioned to fill it.

“It’s crazy ’cause I’ve kind of been in that position before in San Francisco,” he said. “We had a fairly young room. We had some veteran guys come in here and there and play for us, but I kind of took on a leadership role awhile back. And so it’s nothing new to me.”

Buckner will start alongside nose tackle Grover Stewart in the base defense, and there is solid competition to fill out the rotation.

Taylor Stallworth appeared on 25% of the defensive snaps last year, primarily as a solid option in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He’ll have competition for the backup nose tackle role from Antwaun Woods, a free-agent addition with 32 starts for the Dallas Cowboys over the past three seasons.

A mix of young players including 2020 sixth-round draft pick Rob Windsor — who appeared sleeker this spring — two-year veteran Andrew Brown and former undrafted free agents Chris Williams and Kameron Cline will round out the training camp competition.

But it all starts with Buckner.

“You have to have guys that are pillars of your defense, and Buckner is one of those guys,” defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. “When you have that, it breeds confidence. I personally think that bringing Buckner in helped out Grover Stewart for an example. When you bring in Buckner, and Grover was already moving his game up anyway, but I think that accelerated him having Buckner next to him because he saw, ‘My gosh, this guy is a really good player, and he understands how to play the run, play the pass. He knows how to use his hands.’

“I think those guys just really gelled off of each other, and to me, that’s a big reason why Grover had the season he had last year, just because of the acquisition of Buckner. It goes all the way through the group there, and that’s the kind of effect he has.”

That effect is multiplied by the in-person contact this spring and likely by the return of training camp this summer.

Buckner’s on-field presence obviously will help rookie defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo by pulling the offensive line’s attention in another direction. But his off-field leadership is equally important. Buckner planned to meet with the rookies before the Colts left on their summer break, providing them with tips on how to maximize the down time before training camp.

“As soon as they got drafted, I sent them a text just saying I’m excited to work with them moving forward in the next however many years we are going to be here together — telling them that it is just the start,” Buckner said. “Being able to see Kwity (during OTAs) and being able to introduce myself, and then just seeing him going through drills — he’s moving really good. I’m excited to kind of mentor them a little bit and show them the ropes a little bit as they get through all the things that rookies do.”

It’s not just the rookies who stand to benefit.

Buckner has taken third-year pass rusher Ben Banogu and Stallworth under his wing this offseason, inviting both players to private workouts and sharing his accumulated knowledge.

That kind of mentorship is among the many reasons general manager Chris Ballard had no qualms trading a first-round pick to acquire Buckner last year and then signing him to a lucrative extension. He’s a foundational piece for the franchise as it opens what it hopes will be a Super Bowl contention window.

“He’s getting to show just the man that he is,” Eberflus said. “He is a special person, and that’s why he’s here. When you look at his career, he’s done it throughout his career. … When you are a worker like that, plus you’re a guy that likes to play the way we like guys to play — and he’s an All-Pro player — he’s going to have an effect on those guys, and he’s certainly one of our leaders along with Darius Leonard. He’s just done a nice job with that.”

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THB sports editor George Bremer has covered the Indianapolis Colts since 2010. He occasionally sports a beard that can rival Andrew Luck's, but he lacks arm strength and durability.