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Breaking down first round pick defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw

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Film breakdown of Javon Kinlaw’s pass rush and run defense versatility.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 12 South Carolina at Georgia

The 49ers originally had the 31st pick in the draft after the Super Bowl loss and quickly added a second first-round pick after trading defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. They entered the 2020 NFL Draft with picks 13 and 31, and there were a variety of ways they could’ve used that 13th pick.

They could have used it to draft one of the top wide receivers who all fell to the middle of the first round, they could’ve used it to draft a top offensive tackle or could’ve traded out for more capital. They did the latter and still passed on a receiver class (at least initially) that was billed as the best in years. With their 13th pick, they traded one slot back with the Buccaneers and acquired their 4th round pick, 117th overall, for their 13th pick and 245th pick in the seventh round.

They opted to pick the University of South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw with the 14th pick, a move that shocked a lot of fans and angered others. There was a method to their madness, as we’d learn a couple of days later on day 3 of the draft when we were simultaneously bombarded with the news that the 49ers traded one of their fifth-round picks this year and their third-round pick next year for Redskins left tackle Trent Williams and also learned of the impending retirement of left tackle Joe Staley.

In that context, not only were the 49ers able to fill out their defensive line depth with a player widely regarded as the top defensive tackle in the draft, they were also able to use their trade capital to secure a wide receiver later in the first round and flip picks for a two-time all-pro and seven-time pro bowl offensive tackle. It’s hard to imagine draft weekend going any better for the 49ers. Rams head coach Sean McVay, reportedly dismayed by the trade:

So who is Javon Kinlaw? What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? How does he fit into the 49ers defensive front?

Strengths

Kinlaw measures in at 6-foot-5 and 324 pounds. He is near the top of this class in arm length, measuring at 34-7/8 inch arms, in the 92nd percentile. For comparison, former 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner measured in 34-3/8 inch arm length. Although Kinlaw comes in at 30 pounds heavier than Buckner, his size and weight are a non-factor in his athletic ability and, if anything, enable him to defeat blockers with ease.

Length

He immediately wins with his superior length, which allows him to fend off blockers, maintain sound gap integrity, and shed for the tackle or, at a minimum, reroute the ball carrier’s path so that defenders can rally easier. This can be crucial for a team on early downs as it allows them to put their opponents behind the chains.

On this play against North Carolina, he’s lined up as the 0-technique defensive tackle and uses his length to plug the A-gap to his right. His first step is lateral, allowing him to get his gap easier, and he uses his left arm to shield himself from the center’s reach. His presence in plugging the A-gap prevents the runner from that path and causes him to reroute by cutting back inside where Kinlaw finishes for the tackle.

Nowhere is his length on display better than this sack against Alabama.

Against Alabama center Chris Owens (#79), Kinlaw recorded a sack early on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. At the snap, Kinlaw lowers and lunges into the center, initially showing great linear body position and length, allowing him to get inside and under Owen’s block. Kinlaw uses that power to bull rush him into the backfield before shoving him to the ground and chasing Tua around before finishing with the sack.

Athleticism

An athlete of his size and athleticism is rare, and he carried it well. Nowhere was this more evident in the sacks he recorded, although he only recorded five sacks in his first six games last season. According to Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner, Kinlaw’s 15.4% pass rush win rate is the most of any defensive tackle in the last two years.

Pass rush win rate in college also correlates very strongly to the NFL more than any other metric, so that bodes well for Kinlaw, especially joining the ranks of Nick Bosa (for whom pass rush win rate correlated very strongly from college to the NFL), Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford.

He doesn’t use a variety of moves to win inside on passing downs, but the ones he does use, he uses very efficiently and moves very well.

Bull rush

One of the advantages of being 6-foot-5-inches and 324 pounds is that there are not many offensive linemen who are bigger or taller. Here, he’s rushing from the 1-technique defensive tackle spot against North Carolina center Nick Polino (No. 58), who is listed at 6-foot-3-inches and 305 pounds. Kinlaw gets under and inside Polino’s pad level and lifts him up and back into the quarterback’s lap, forcing the quarterback to leave the pocket and scramble.

Pin and rip

He also has an efficient pin and rip move that he used several times to gain leverage on interior blockers, where he usually will execute an inside step and rip through the blocker’s reach.

The pin and rip is a move that allows Kinlaw to use his athleticism to shoot inside. He first pins the blockers outside arm, not allowing the blocker an opportunity to punch. He pairs the pin with a quick vertical move to the inside and upfield as he rips through. The blocker has already lost the battle as Kinlaw is inside the blockers’ reach and driving him back. He’s unable to corral quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but nonetheless, he shows tremendous strength and athleticism.

Push and pull

The push and pull is another move showing off pure strength and athleticism.

His rush lane is actually a slant over into the B-gap to his right, but that’s not really a tough task for an athlete like Kinlaw. He gets lateral and slides across the guard’s face, gets vertical in one step, and executes a quick pull and push rush technique where his inside arm pulls the shoulder of the guard down simultaneously with his outside arm pushing on the outside shoulder of the guard.

This removes the surface the blocker can control and allows Kinlaw to rip under the punch of the guard, bend the corner with great flexibility, and put pressure on the quarterback. The quarterback can get the ball off, but not before Kinlaw pressures him into a hurried throw.

Run defense

Kinlaw struggled early on in 2019 in run defense primarily because he was susceptible to double teams but gradually improved as the season went on.

While it’s not a huge concern, at times he did display a late get off at the snap, and from there a cascading series of events where he would get lateral, causing him to be late with his attack and allowing the blockers in front of him to control his path, like in the play above.

Overall he developed into a solid run defender as the season progressed, and he even showed glimpses of this later in the same game against Alabama.

In the first clip, he is still late off the ball, but he saves this rep with low pad level and gets his hands inside the chest plate of the guard before swiping his arms away rallying to stop the ball carrier. In the second clip, he gets off the snap quicker, gets vertical, and stays linear as he engages and drives the center into the backfield. If the center does his job, the defensive tackle should never get into the backfield from the backside of a power run away from him, and yet he does it with ease.

As a run defender, he made a living pushing offensive linemen into the backfield to disrupt the timing of the play and the path of the running back. While run defense is less important overall to playing defense in the NFL, it plays to the 49ers’ strengths to have a front four that can jam the run on early downs and force opposing offenses into long passing situations because of the strength of the defense is the pass rush.

OUTLOOK

The 49ers drafted Kinlaw to be an all-down player, so it’s tough to justify why some call this a terrible pick. Working with Kris Kocurek will also be an added benefit as they will likely look to refine his technique on-base rundowns and teach him a few more moves he can use to counter blockers on the passing downs. Either way, they’ll be looking for Kinlaw to fill the Buckner’s void, but he should adapt and fit in quickly with the elite talent around him.