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Looking back at Javon Kinlaw’s rookie season with 49ers

Kinlaw was selected 14th overall at the 2020 NFL Draft to help replace DeForest Buckner.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When San Francisco 49ers’ general manager John Lynch agreed to trade defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick, whoever came in as DeFo’s replacement would have big shoes to fill.

That responsibility fell on South Carolina product Javon Kinlaw, who was selected 14th overall in last year’s NFL Draft.

Buckner had a great season with the Colts. The 26-year-old stabilized a very good Indy defense, finishing the year with 58 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 26 QB hits.

The reason Buckner was moved during the 2020 offseason had nothing to do with production but rather the business side of the game. With so many big-name free agents on the horizon, Lynch had to decide if he would rather pay DeFo market value or move on from the 2016 first-round pick.

No one expected Kinlaw to come in and be as dominant as Buckner right away. The pandemic thwarted the NFL’s offseason plans, which hindered the amount of time Kinlaw was able to work directly with coaches.

Still, the 23-year-old flashed his potential during his year as a pro. Former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh praised Kinlaw and acknowledged that he is still a work in progress during his season-ending media availability.

“With regards to Javon, I think his track this year and what he’s been able to do as a rookie has been awesome ...

It’s just my opinion that the second hardest position behind the quarterback is the interior defensive lineman. 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. Then you get to the NFL and the blocking combinations are different. The speed’s different. The power’s different. Their pass-rushing is different because those guys play a game within a game. So, there’s a huge learning curve with regards to being able to go in there and play at a very consistent level.”

Here is how Kinlaw’s rookie numbers compare to Buckner’s first season in the league.

Kinlaw: 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, four QB hits, PFF grade 54.1, 53% of total defensive snaps.

Buckner: 73 tackles, 6.0 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 18 QB hits, PFF grade 71.6, 87% of total defensive snaps.

Buckner played more defensive end during his rookie campaign, which enabled him to get after the QB more often, while Kinlaw lined up more inside. Plus, the 2016 49ers were an awful team, going 2-14 in Chip Kelly’s one-and-only season as head coach with a lot less talent than the Niners currently have on the roster. The 2020 Niners’ defense finished in the top ten and, despite all of the injuries, still had more playmakers than the 2016 edition.

Kinlaw was much rawer than Buckner coming in. His pass-rushing moves weren’t as refined as Buckner’s, and his fundamentals weren’t at the same level.

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 many times 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. He would get stuck being too upright and lose his leverage against opposing offensive lineman.

Going into his second year, Kinlaw will need to work hard at developing a signature move during the offseason. Once he develops a go-to, he can work on establishing a counter.

Kinlaw has all of the tools to develop into an outstanding interior defensive lineman, and the Niners’ brass is confident that he will.

What are some of the areas do you think Kinlaw needs to improve the most? Do you think he will make a big leap next season?