Going into the 2020 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers had two significant holes they needed to fill. Veteran Emmanuel Sanders signed with the New Orleans Saints in free agency, leaving a void at wide receiver. General manager John Lynch also needed to find a defensive lineman after trading away dependable Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner for a first-round selection.
Lynch addressed the latter by taking South Carolina product Javon Kinlaw with the No. 14 pick. Kinlaw showed flashes during his rookie season, where he finished with 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, four QB hits. Lynch jumped on The Athletic’s TK Show podcast with Tim Kawakami and shared his thoughts on why he believes Kinlaw will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come and compared him to an all-time great.
“I played with Warren Sapp, and I remember Kinlaw’s rookie year was about like Warren Sapp’s rookie year. They’re different players. Kinlaw’s a much bigger man, but I think they both have the ability. Warren Sapp, obviously, I’m setting a high standard, maybe the best ever to do it. But I think back, and I think the point I’m trying to illustrate, defensive linemen, don’t always just come in and dominate right away in terms of numbers and all that ...
Now, Kinlaw showed us enough, more importantly, showed us, I think, the mentality,” Lynch continued. “He wants to be great. He’s willing to put forth the effort to be great and do the things necessary.”
The 23-year-old played in 14 games this season and will benefit from what will hopefully be a full offseason.
After taking Kinlaw at No. 14, San Francisco traded up six spots to nab receiver Brandon Aiyuk with the 25th pick. The Arizona State product was one of the best players for the 49ers during his rookie campaign, where he finished with 60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games.
Aiyuk’s 748 reception yards is the third-highest for a rookie receiver in 49ers’ history. Only Jerry Rice (927) and Deebo Samuel (802) had more receiving yards in their inaugural season. If Aiyuk didn’t deal with injuries/COVID-19 related absences, it’s easy to see how he would have eclipsed those totals if he played in all 16 games.
Lynch was full of optimism when sharing his thoughts on having Aiyuk and Samuel on the field together during the 2021 season.
“The best quality about both those guys, they want to be great. Of course, every player wants to be great. Are they willing to put in the work to be great? And the answer is yes for both of them. They both have the ability.
“We’re in a position, I really believe, they’re both different, but I think we’ve got two number one receivers, if those guys can stay on the field, in Deebo and Brandon Aiyuk.”
Both rookies were hurt by the cancellation of OTAs and training time due to the pandemic, but every other NFL rookie dealt with the same circumstances.
Kinlaw and Aiyuk played well enough that fans will have increased expectations for both players during their sophomore seasons. Having Nick Bosa back should allow Kinlaw to make more plays from the inside, and with a few months to get some more seasoning before the 2021 campaign, we might see a big jump in the defensive tackle’s production.
Lynch is absolutely right about the combination of Aiyuk and Samuel. The receivers are both YAC monsters — which makes them invaluable in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense — and can break off long runs in the rushing attack as well.
With a healthy roster, the 49ers should be among the Super Bowl contenders again in 2021. If Kinlaw and Aiyuk can take another step in their development, it will go a long way in getting the franchise back into the postseason.
What are your expectations for Kinlaw and Aiyuk next season?