From the moment Javon Kinlaw was selected in the first round by the 49ers, he has faced lofty expectations. This is what happens when the organization moves on from a productive player that was among the best in the game at his position.
Fair or not, Kinlaw will always be compared to his predecessor, DeForest Buckner. This is understandable considering San Francisco used the draft pick they received from the Indianapolis Colts to draft the big defensive tackle out of South Carolina.
There isn’t much on the stat sheet from Kinlaw’s rookie season that jumps out at you. He recorded only 1.5 sacks and 4 quarterback hits in 14 games. Despite this, there were enough flashes to believe that there is the potential for more production to come.
One example of this came in the second contest against the Rams. Late in the first half, Kinlaw and Kerry Hyder worked a stunt to perfection. With precise timing, Kinlaw was able to speed around the edge of the offensive line as Hyder drove into the Rams right tackle. The resulting pressure from Kinlaw forced Rams quarterback Jared Goff to scramble. This resulted in a fumble when Goff was hit by safety Jimmie Ward and Hyder was able to track the ball down. This was a tremendous play that does not show up anywhere on the stat sheet for Kinlaw.
Why believe that he will show improvement?
Kinlaw is extremely athletic and powerful. This shows up often, especially when defending the run as he does a very good job of holding the point of attack and working down the line to chase the running back. With arms that measure nearly 35 inches, when Kinlaw is able to get fully extended there is almost no way for the offensive lineman to get into his body. This helps Kinlaw to quickly shed the blocker and pursue the ball carrier.
The athleticism also shows up at times when rushing the passer, but not necessarily as a rusher. When Kinlaw realizes that he is not going to get to the quarterback, he often will stop his pass rush and watch the eyes of the quarterback. This ability led to a near interception against the New Orleans Saints, and was how Kinlaw ended up in a passing lane during the next game, intercepting Rams quarterback Jared Goff on the second play of the second half and returning it for a touchdown.
Why should you be concerned about Kinlaw moving forward?
A strong case can be made that Kinlaw’s development was stunted due to the inability to work with the 49ers coaching staff until showing up for training camp due to Covid-19. The athleticism and strength of Kinlaw rarely shows up when trying to get to the opposing quarterback. This is primarily due to a lack of pass rush moves. The majority of the time Kinlaw is limited to a straight bull rush in which he tries to drive the offensive lineman back into the quarterback.
If Kinlaw can develop some additional go-to pass rush moves, perhaps a spin move, a swim move, or use his long arms to rip through the offensive lineman, the numbers will improve for Kinlaw.
So what are realistic expectations for Javon Kinlaw in year two?
The 49ers have made a number of additions to the defensive line this offseason, including the addition of two interior players, Zach Kerr and Maurice Hurst in free agency. These moves were most likely targeted to strengthen the rotation and should do little to change the number of snaps that Kinlaw plays per game.
Look for Kinlaw to continue to improve, and finish with right around 40 tackles in 2021. If he can come up with four to five sacks, that would be a welcome improvement. More importantly, Kinlaw needs to be able to generate more pressure from the interior, but it may be a stretch to expect him to get double-digit hits on opposing quarterbacks considering his rookie performance. With Nick Bosa returning, and Samson Ebukam brought in to solidify the other defensive end position, this should be the season that we truly see what the 49ers can get out of the 14th selection of the 2020 draft.