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Film room: First round rookies Brandon Aiyuk and Javon Kinlaw were the best players against the Saints

Film room looks at the impact of rookies Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk on the Saints game

San Francisco 49ers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The 49ers dropped their third game in a row to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon in front of a limited capacity crowd in New Orleans 27-13 in a game that was within reach going into the fourth quarter. Truth be told, when it was 17-10, one touchdown lead for the Saints felt insurmountable due to a stagnant offense that was unable to deal with the Saints’ edge pressure and inability to run the ball effectively.

The 49ers did just about all they could to stay competitive while giving up two turnovers on punt returns that led to points for the Saints. Offensively, drives stalled due to an inability to run the ball and Mullens’ lack of mobility in dealing with pressure.

Defensively, Robert Saleh coached another largely brilliant defensive game even as the special teams’ units gave up valuable field position. They’re still ranked 12th most efficient defense in Football Outsider,s DVOA, and that’s pretty good considering the personnel they are missing. In fact, the bulk of the Saints’ points came on drives where they started in plus territory at the 49ers 25, 21, and 22-yard lines.

They’re all told that they’re performing about as expected with no viable quarterback on the roster and back-ups at nearly every key position. The injuries have paved the way for their two rookie first-round draft picks, Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk, to get valuable reps to develop their talents and skills even further. So far through the first half of the season, they’re performing as good as any first-round rookie should.

Through eight games played, Aiyuk has 35 catches, 446 yards, and three touchdowns. He has another two rushing touchdowns. Javon Kinlaw recorded the first two sacks of his career against the Saints after coming close in every game so far. The stats aren’t as flashy as the rookie receiver, but as far as defensive line play goes, Kinlaw is developing quite nicely regardless of what the box score says. However, fans need to be patient with him, and it’s worth remembering that DeForest Buckner started his career slow as well. Kinlaw will be just fine.

Javon Kinlaw pass rush and run defense

Pass rush

Kinlaw is still developing as a pass rusher. He was a raw unfinished product coming out of South Carolina who only had a few pass rush moves he was skilled with, and there was always going to be room for improvement for defensive tackles with his size and athletic ability.

And he’s refining his technique with each passing week. Here working against left guard Andrus Peat (No. 75), Kinlaw shows that he’s added Nick Bosa’s signature 2-hand swipe move to his arsenal of pass rush moves. He fires off the ball, aiming at the guard’s inside hip before executing the Bosa brother’s patented power step that propels them around the edge. Kinlaw launches off that step to the outside of Peat, swipes his hands away, and beats Peat through the B-gap.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t get quarterback Drew Brees in time to affect the pass because it was a quick throw for Brees, but Kinlaw put another good, solid rep on tape.


Kinlaw recorded two sacks this game as well, his first two of his career and hopefully not his last this season.

He got himself into a bit of a stalemate with the left guard on the first sack but managed to fight through and get around him. First, he fires off the ball too high, already making it more difficult to execute his 2-hand swipe. The blocker punches him first, and it stalls Kinlaw’s rush momentarily. This is where his strength takes over. As he steps to the outside, the blocker pulls him down and throws him into the ground, where he’s actually able to finish with the sack.

He split his second sack with Jordan Willis and was working against rookie right guard Cesar Ruiz.

Kinlaw is aligned in a 4i-technique shaded over the tackle’s inside shoulder. He fires off the ball again a bit too high, and Ruiz can control him momentarily. However, seeing Jameis Winston step up into the pocket, Kinlaw quickly sheds Ruiz and steps into Winston’s running lane. Kerry Hyder (No. 92) is unable to coral Winston, but Kinlaw keeps the pursuit up, doesn’t give up, and eventually brings him down with Jordan Willis.

Batted passes

Some of his best work comes with play recognition in the passing game and reading the quarterback’s eyes, and feeling the shallow routes behind the front four.

Pass rushers won’t always win their reps and if they can affect the pass in other ways, then they’ll find ways to get it done. He has batted passes down at the line of scrimmage and against the Saints, was able to peel off into an underneath zone to rob Alvin Kamara on a Texas route out of the back field. He did so with the guard grabbing a hold of his jersey.

Had he not been held, easily would’ve swatted the ball away. He doesn’t quite get a hand on it because of the hold but he affects the pass nonetheless.

So far this season, he has three batted passes at the line of scrimmage.

Run defense

So far his best reps come in run defense and right now that is where his play strength is best utilized while he develops in the pass rush. He currently has 16 tackles with 14 stops in there. Runners don’t often gain many yards when he plugs the opposing team’s run game.

Kinlaw is lined up, head up over left guard Andrus Peat (No. 75). At the snap, Kinlaw stays a bit more linear and lower than on his pass-rush snaps. His wide base anchors him in the run as he attacks downhill at Peat.

After they meet, Kinlaw shoves Peat aside, and steps into the B-gap as Taysom Hill approaches the line of scrimmage on his quarterback run. Hill bounces out, but Kinlaw is already through the line and attempting to wrap up for the tackle. Hyder assists in the stop.

Where Kinlaw needs to improve

His pad level right now is the concerning part of his game. He has a tendency to come off the ball too high, as shown above in his pass rush. In the run game, this can be devastating if he is not low enough to attack the blocker in front of him effectively.

Here against Miami, his pad level higher than the guard’s actually caused him to be blown off the ball five yards downfield. The rest of the defenders are still battling at the line of scrimmage. He is still a stout run defender, but he does have quite a few reps like this over the course of 10 games.

Brandon Aiyuk provides only spark for the offense

Brandon Aiyuk is quickly becoming a go-to player for the 49ers on offense and is earning valuable reps with the injuries to other receivers.


One of the things he struggled with in college was his releases against press coverage and not having a plan to get off the defender’s jam. In the NFL, he’s developing ways to beat contact in press coverage and looks more fluid against impending contact.

Here he uses a single move and wipe away technique to beat Marshon Lattimore’s press coverage. Off the line, he releases attacking Lattimore’s outside shoulder, gives him a stutter move at the top of his stem, and then cuts inside on a quick slant. Lattimore backpedals and moves to take outside leverage away from Aiyuk because he has a safety over the top, and as he goes to collision Aiyuk, Aiyuk swats away his hand smooth and quick as he cuts inside.

That subtle move gets Aiyuk open by 2 yards, long enough for Mullens to zip a pass into the open zone. Aiyuk doesn’t go down at first contact either. He bounces off the safety’s hit, keeps his feet moving, and drives for more yards after contact and first down.

Route running

His route running ability is developing nicely too. Here, he would’ve had a long completion down the sideline, but a tug of the arm by Jenoris Jenkins drew a pass interference foul after Aiyuk gave him a double move and got open down the sideline.

Aiyuk is running a “read takeoff” route down the sideline. On “read takeoff,” the receiver gets vertical and gives the defender a quick stutter before staying vertical. The move fools Jenkins and gets him to breakdown like Aiyuk is going to stop and turn. But Aiyuk keeps going, and that move causes Jenkins to grab Aiyuk’s arm, drawing a flag. Aiyuk would’ve had a few yards separation if not for the grab, and Mullens throws it out in front of him, but the grab slowed him down, allowing Jenkins to disrupt the pass.

Difficult catches

Having the wingspan and catch radius that Aiyuk comes in handy when the quarterbacks are throwing inaccurate passes in the dirt or high above your average receiver’s reach.

Aiyuk is running a choice route on “choice water” and cuts outside against a defender with inside leverage. This is the same play that the 49ers hit the Saints with on the 4th down call last season to Kittle to set them up with the game winning field goal. Mullens throws the pass nearly in the dirt but Aiyuk’s wingspan allows him to barely reach for it eight inches off the turf, tuck it away, and get up field for a first down.

Later in the game, he made a nice diving catch as the 49ers attempted a comeback down 27-13.

He’s tagged with running a deep post route that he has the awareness to cut flat with the deep safety sitting in the middle of the field. He sees Mullens scramble, so he sprints across the field to make himself a target. The pass is in front and low and away from the defender that’s right in his hip pocket, so he lunges for the pass and catches and secures the ball as he hits the ground. That’s the kind of effort you want to see from a rookie receiver.


Kinlaw is still a raw product who will hopefully continue to refine his skill set under Kris Kocurek, and Aiyuk appears to be headed for the primary receiver role in Shanahan’s scheme if he continues to make the plays he’s making every week.

The first-round rookies are developing quite nicely given the current circumstances the team finds themselves in with injuries and currently a last place slot in the NFC West. One thing is certain, and that is the 49ers continue to find young talent that will be a feature of the team in the years ahead.