When the San Francisco 49ers traded stud defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts last offseason, general manager filled the need by selecting Javon Kinlaw 14th overall at the 2020 NFL Draft.
The South Carolina product — who just underwent minor knee surgery — played in 14 games during his rookie season, finishing with 33 total tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and four QB hits. He also had a memorable pick-six in the Week 12 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
Kinlaw couldn’t use his raw athleticism and strength to bully NFL offensive lineman as he did in college, which is one reason why Pro Football Focus says he wasn’t productive last season.
Despite ranking his rookie year as subpar, PFF believes Kinlaw is one of six rookies who is a breakout candidate for 2021:
What went wrong in 2020: Kinlaw was unproductive, plain and simple. He lacked consistency both in run defense (46.9 grade) and pass rushing (58.0 grade), leading to an overall PFF grade that ranked 85th among 111 qualifying interior defensive linemen (54.1). His production, or lack thereof, isn’t entirely unexpected given the type of prospect he was coming out of college. Kinlaw won as much as he did at South Carolina because of his height, length, overall athleticism, get-off and bull rush. He still had a long way to go with his pass-rush toolbox and hand placement, which was evident in 2020.
Why they are going to break out in 2021: I wouldn’t expect Kinlaw to make a jump to elite status in 2021, but a breakout to a certain degree is in the cards. Again, this rookie class was at a disadvantage more than any other set of first-year players in NFL history due to the coronavirus-impacted offseason. Kinlaw recognized coming out of college that his pass-rush repertoire was an area of weakness and knew it was bound to improve with better coaching. I alluded to his bull rush when asking him a question at last year’s NFL combine, and this was his response:
Another year with the 49ers’ coaching staff could do wonders for Kinlaw. He could be in line for a similar career trajectory as Stephon Tuitt, who struggled as a rookie (49.9 PFF grade) and was actually PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner’s player comparison for Kinlaw in last year’s PFF Draft Guide.
Departed defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said he was happy with Kinlaw’s progress during his first season and acknowledged how difficult it is to learn the position as a rookie.
“It’s just my opinion that the second hardest position behind the quarterback is the interior defensive lineman,” Saleh said. “It’s a different animal in there. You can’t bully people like you have your entire life. You go through high school, college, you’re just bigger, stronger, faster than everybody.”
Kinlaw’s four QB hits tied for fourth among rookie interior defensive lineman. But, he lacked a plan or a counter as a pass rusher. He’d bull rush right into the defender, and while Kinlaw has very active hands, he would hardly gain any ground toward the passer.
Despite being strong as an ox, Kinlaw was moved off his spot far too often against the run this season. He either wouldn’t stay square and let the double team move him, or Kinlaw’s pad level would get him in trouble.
The changes to the last offseason due to the pandemic may have affected Kinlaw’s performance. Coaches would have watched him get some live reps and then tried to help him develop some counter moves and sharpen his technique in the trenches.
Do you think Kinlaw will make a big jump in his sophomore season?