Javon Kinlaw entered the 2020 regular season with the daunting task of replacing one of the best players on the San Francisco 49ers. Losing DeForest Buckner was a blow for the Niners both on and off the field, but investing in Kinlaw, where the team did put unfair expectations on the rookie.
Without much of an offseason at all, Kinlaw flashed but didn’t live up to the “Buckner billing.” In Kinlaw’s defense, how could he? He finished the regular season with 1.5 sacks and nine QB hits on 295 pass rushes, per Sports Info Solutions.
If we’re comparing both players and their rookie seasons — neither had the benefit of Nick Bosa — Buckner had a higher sack and hit percentage. Still, Kinlaw’s average depth of tackle was nearly a yard closer to the line of scrimmage (1.6 compared to 2.7) than Buckner’s, which tells us when Kinlaw did make a play, it was impactful for the defense.
Kinlaw spoke about how beneficial being in the building since early spring and behind around his teammates has helped him. Year 2 is generally when players take their biggest step, and the 49ers need their first-round pick from ‘20 to live up to the hype in 2021.
Age: 23 (turns 24 October 3)
Experience: One accrued season
Weight: 324 pounds
Over the Cap has Kinlaw’s 2021 base salary just over one million. Kinlaw’s total contract value is $15.4 million, and he’ll average $3.8 annually during his rookie contract.
Why he might improve in 2021
It doesn’t seem like a big deal but having an offseason where you can workout at your teams’ facilities and interact with the guys you play next to daily while improving as a player goes a long way.
Having good players next to you on the field helps, too. During his final game of the season against the Cowboys in Week 15, Dion Jordan, Kentavius Street, and Jordan Willis all played double-digit snaps along with the 49ers' defensive line. If you are a playoff team, those names should not be suiting up for your defense.
This time around, Kinlaw is playing next to Bosa, and hopefully Dee Ford, but also Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, and the depth inside with the likes of D.J. Jones, Zach Kerr, and Kevin Givens. The quality and quantity the 49ers have built upfront defensively will make everyone better.
Plus, he won’t be playing out of position. Kinlaw played 163 snaps as an edge rusher last season. Those are 163 reps where he didn’t get a chance to rush over a guard or a center and develop. That comes out to about three games worth of snaps at defensive tackle.
Leaving Kinlaw inside will teach him he can’t overpower everyone he goes against as he did in the SEC and will need a pass-rushing plan to win. Once Kinlaw develops a go-to move, that’s when he’ll take off as a player.
What to expect in 2021
I can say with confidence that I have no idea. I watched Kinlaw dominate the best college conference and run through Alabama linemen as if they were eighth-graders. Then, he gets to the NFL and doesn’t have a sack until the tenth game of the season or a tackle for loss until Week 14. Kinlaw played better than his raw stats suggest, but the 49ers didn’t take him 14th overall to be an above-average run defender.
Kinlaw was drafted to get after the quarterback, which the Niners expect he does this upcoming season. I’ll be curious to see if DeMeco Ryans turns Kinlaw loose, puts him in a position that requires less reading, and keying certain offensive linemen and allows Kinlaw to pin his ears back.
Buckner only had three sacks during his second season, but he improved his QB hit, knockdown, pressure, and passes batted percentage. That’s what the 49ers are hoping for: growth.
If Kinlaw can unlock some of his potential this year, the Niners' defense has a chance to get back to their elite status. It’s not all on Kinlaw, and it’s not fair to put that type of pressure on him. If he is as good as many draft analysts and pundits believed, myself included, we’ll find out this year.