The San Francisco 49ers defensive line will single-handedly win them a game or two this season. Is that a hot take? It shouldn’t be. You could make an argument this already happened in 2019. The Niners enter 2020 with better depth than they did a season ago. While there is no replacing DeForest Buckner, I’m going to reserve judgment on Javon Kinlaw until after a few games.
Generally speaking, being a lineman on either side of the ball is one of the biggest adjustments going from college to the pros. Kinlaw’s transition should be easier than most having played in the SEC. However, there are still more accountants and future 9-5 workers Kinlaw faced during his time at South Carolina than players he’d be lining up against on Sundays. The beauty of drafting Kinlaw on this team is that he doesn’t have to be “the guy” right out of the gate. Kinlaw doesn’t even have to be the second-best threat. That’s a luxury few teams besides San Francisco have.
Building on depth
Last season, the 49ers entered the regular season with their backups as Sheldon Day, Jullian Taylor, Ronald Blair, and Solomon Thomas, who was still playing on the edge. This season, you have a bulked up Thomas playing inside. A bigger version of Kevin Givens, and a healthy version of Kentavius Street. Not to mention a veteran who has had a career year in this system in Kerry Hyder. Each one of these players showed their improvements during camp. It may not seem like a big deal, but if the 49ers can take their starters off the field for 10 additional plays without their being a significant drop-off, the starters will be 100 players fresher for the final stretch of the season. Maintenance will be key for the defensive line this year, but you can’t play guys that aren’t good enough. Thankfully, it appears like the younger guys have finally stepped up and are ready to contribute.
Hampered by health?
The Dee Ford domino effect is pretty strong. When Ford can’t suit up, Arik Armstead usually remains on the edge in sub-packages. If he has to kick inside, teams double-teamed Nick Bosa and dared someone else to win 1-on-1. Bosa is that good where he still made an impact, but it’s a tall task to rely on one player to get after the quarterback. That’s why managing the starters snap counts will be critical, so guys like Armstead still have their legs come December.
Stepping it up inside
Last season, the Niners ranked 17th in interior defensive line sacks. That’s unacceptable when you have the talent the team has on the edge. At least one player lined up inside is 1-on-1 every play. Only 22% of San Francisco’s sacks came from the interior in 2019, and I’m sure a handful of those were from the Bosa/Ford/Armstead trio lining up as a three-technique. This is where Kinlaw can make a significant difference from pushing the pocket. If the quarterbacks have nowhere to step up, the guys on the edge can make a play.
We’ll find out if Street, Givens, and Solly are ready for the big stage. They’ll have every opportunity to prove they can get after the quarterback. You can’t ask to come into a better situation if you’re one of the three mentioned above, knowing you’ll likely receive the least amount of help from the offensive line.
As for improving against the run, San Francisco finished second in the NFL on third and fourth or two or less last season, stopping 50% of those runs. If there is one area where Kinlaw will make an immediate impact, it’s allowing the 49ers to avoid getting into those short-yardage situations. Kinlaw and D.J. Jones will be near impossible for teams to move upfront. They’ll allow the linebackers to run freely behind them and make plays. Early on in the season, that’ll be the main job for Kinlaw and Jones. Anything they contribute as a pass rusher is the icing on the cake.