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Why giving up on Javon Kinlaw would be a huge mistake

Technically, Kinlaw is still in the rotation for the 49ers. Here’s why they shouldn’t think about moving on from the former 1st round pick

San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

When it comes to Javon Kinlaw, his ability on the field has never been the issue. The problem has been his availability, with the former first round picking missing over 50 percent of his games since entering the league in 2020.

When Kinlaw has been on the field, the flashes of the brilliance that led the 49ers to become so enamored with him leading up to the 2020 draft have been evident. The raw athleticism that Kinlaw possesses is something that simply cannot be taught. You either have it or you don’t.

Even among the behemoths that surround him in the NFL, Kinlaw stands tall as a larger than life figure, oozing with the potential and promise of what could be.

As Kinlaw enters his fourth year in the NFL, the 49ers will soon be faced with a decision to make a final determination about picking up Kinlaw’s fifth-year option, which is slated at $10,455,000 dollars per Over The Cap.

While the 49ers have until May 1 to make any official decision regarding Kinlaw’s option, it is beyond likely that they have already charted a path forward that involves them declining the 10 plus million dollar option for the 2024 season.

It’s just too steep of a number for a player who has had those availability concerns, particularly for a team that is dependent on every single cent of available cap space as they look to retain a very talented roster and the expensive cap hits that come with it.

While it would be unwise at this time to make that firm commitment beyond the 2023 season to Kinlaw, it would be an even bigger mistake to move on from him at any point during this offseason.

If San Francisco were to release Kinlaw, they would not get any type of salary cap relief, and would be on the hook for the entire $4,928,223 Kinlaw is due. There is no world where it makes sense to cut ties with Kinlaw while not getting any kind of financial flexibility in return. That should be completely off the table.

If the 49ers found a willing trade partner for Kinlaw, that dead cap number would be just 44 percent of the $4,928,223 it would be with an outright release. There would, however, be $2,722,096 in cap savings, which again could prove vitally important for a team working within the margins the way the 49ers currently are.

Given the fact that the market for Kinlaw is probably lackluster presently, and the fact the 49ers have the flexibility to free up a similar amount of money elsewhere, trading Kinlaw would be a massive mistake by a team that has invested so much into him to this point.

The most critical thing to consider when evaluating Kinlaw’s future is how much of an injury risk will there be going forward. Questions such as, are the knee issues that have plagued him simply the result of unfortunate luck, or are there chronic issues that will directly impact the ability for Kinlaw to blossom into the impact player he has shown flashes of being, must be answered.

It is also essential to consider the timeline of events since Kinlaw has been with the 49ers. Here is a quick summary to review the major milestones in Kinlaw’s injury history over the last three seasons:

December 20th, 2020: Kinlaw exits game in Dallas with a knee injury. Misses final two games of the season. Has “routine” procedure to “clean up” knee in January 2021.

2021 season: Kinlaw missed week one, but played in weeks 2-5 logging a total of 149 snaps.

October 29th, 2021: Kinlaw underwent successful ACL reconstruction surgery. Missed the remainder of the 2021 season.

2022 season: Kinlaw plays the 49ers first three games, logging a total of 102 snaps. Following a Week 3 loss to Denver, Kinlaw is held out and subsequently placed on injured reserve with what is listed as a Grade 2 ACL sprain. Kinlaw is quoted as saying: “I’m not concerned about it at all … I’m not in any pain or anything. It’s just something I’m dealing with. My knee is making a lot of fluid.”

December 22nd, 2022: Kinlaw is officially activated from the injured reserve. Returns to play in the final six games for the 49ers, logging a total of 141 snaps.

To get a better idea of Kinlaw’s injury timeline and what the outlook should be regarding his recovery moving forward, I spoke with Dr. Nirav K. Pandya MD, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist within the UCSF Department of Orthopedic Surgery.

Dr. Pandya was gracious enough to share his sports medicine expertise and provide a much clearer picture about how things have gone, and how you can expect them to go moving forward regarding Kinlaw.

I started by asking Dr. Pandya about the most recent setback Kinlaw experienced last season, and what the level of concern should be with fluid build up in the surgically repaired knee at this juncture of the recovery timeline:

“I think you see it pretty typically, especially for bigger athletes who get ACL surgery done. Anytime you have that surgery the knee is more susceptible to get irritated. Then you throw in the fact he has had knee issues before, so thats also an environment where his knee is already a bit more irritable. You don’t see it in every single ACL patient, but I would say about 10-15 percent of ACL patients, particularly those who do higher level sports will have a knee that gets irritated afterwards and they’ll get fluid build up just because the knee is more sensitive. It’s not a huge red flag, it’s something you’d see in a subset of patients who had ACL surgery”

Dr. Pandya then went on to explain how a couple of outliers have led to a misconception of how long the recovery from ACL surgery typically is for the majority of patients:

“For most people with their mechanics, Nick Bosa being a huge exception, people usually start getting back to normal statistics wise around month 18, because even though everything is “healed” somewhere between 9-12 months, the body still in terms of getting used to your mechanics, strength and all that other stuff can take additional time. So for me it’s more when he comes back, what i’m looking for in the first season back is he out there, is he starting to look a little better.

Two things really stood out here. The first was the 18-month timeframe Dr. Pandya noted. The 18-month mark from the day of Kinlaw’s ACL reconstruction would be April 29 of this year.

The second was Dr. Pandya noting the progress that had been made by Kinlaw, simply being able to take the field at this point in his recover. Just getting back out there was a major milestone in itself.

Dr. Pandya continued to explain how the coming months during this offseason will be the most critical when it comes to gauging the long-term outlook for Kinlaw’s surgically repaired knee:

“This next upcoming year is really the key year for him. All the rehab and other stuff should be up to speed now, this is the timeframe where you’ll really get a sense of where is Javon Kinlaw moving forward. This past year he’s having the irritation, he’s having the swelling, he’s having setbacks. I think this upcoming year is the year you make the long term determinations, rather than last season. If it’s just general you had surgery and you’re recovering from it kind of irritation, I don’t think thats much of a warning sign at all. He’s a big guy who puts a lot of strain across his knee, I just think this is a reflection of that.

Dr. Pandya went on to emphasize how crucial the coming months will be. Until this point, the setbacks were something that is fairly typical in the recovery period Kinlaw was in. Dr. Pandya also noted that should these setbacks continue to occur beyond this upcoming season, it would unfortunately signal that this is what would have to be expected moving forward:

Moving forward I think this is where we get the chance to see him at or near where his physical peak is going to be. If this year goes by and he has another flare up or he has more irritation or has more swelling, I don’t think an additional year is going to suddenly make it better, at that point it would just have to be what we expect moving forward.

Just to reiterate one final time, the setbacks from this past season are something that doesn’t overly concern Dr. Pandya. There was plenty of positive to takeaway, even if it may have been overshadowed by those setbacks. It's all about these next few months ahead, where there should be a definitive conclusion about how Kinlaw will fare moving forward:

The past makes sense, its not super concerning, I think the fact he was out on the field for stretches of time is important, and even after his time away, came back and played even if it wasn’t at the same level was reassuring. But I think this next upcoming season is where we are going to see all of the physical parts out of the way, and get a sense of whats his knee going to be like in the NFL going forward.

Based on what Dr. Pandya relayed, there is plenty of reason to have optimism that Kinlaw can be an impact player for the 49ers moving forward. If his knee can recover, there is no reason to believe he cannot build on the promise he has shown early in his career.

There is a common misconception that Kinlaw didn’t have a strong rookie season because he did not post gaudy sack numbers. This could not be farther from the truth, as Kinlaw had a substantial impact as a run defender, while also posting more than respectable numbers for an interior pass rusher.

Kinlaw had at least one pressure in 11 of the 15 games he appeared in as a rookie, with five of those games logging multiple pressures. Kinlaw recorded multiple STOPs in six of those 14 games, and his stop rate relative to run defense snaps was among the best in the league at his position.

Right away, there were glimpses of the immense potential, like this pressure Kinlaw put on Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Lined up as a three tech, Kinlaw was able to sell the stem of his rush to the outside shoulder of the guard, before taking an explosive step inside and clearing a path to Murray with a club move.

This pressure on Murray was in September 2020, before any of the aforementioned injuries or medical procedures. Fast-forward to August 2022 and Kinlaw was capable of executing a similar pass rushing move with a noticeable amount of explosion just 10 months after his ACL reconstruction.

That progress carried over into the regular season, where Kinlaw logged a pressure on the very first snap of the season in the 49ers Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears. Kinlaw is again going to target the inside shoulder of the guard, finishing over the top with a swim move to get this pressure on quarterback Justin Fields.

Kinlaw had another win in this game, this time essentially flipped on the opposite side of the line:

Kinlaw also demonstrated the value he brings to the table defending the run. In a Week 2 win over the Seahawks, Kinlaw flashed his superhuman strength on this rep by slamming the guard attempting to block him into the lane the running back was attempting to go through:

Here is another from Week 3, with Kinlaw fighting off a down block from the 2i to stuff this rushing attempt at the line of scrimmage:

Even after the setback from an ACL sprain that sidelined Kinlaw for nearly three months, there still were the flashes of greatness down the stretch run. This one from the Week 18 matchup with the Cardinals is an eye-opening example. While being double-teamed, Kinlaw essentially tosses the right guard into the rushing lane. He effectively tackled a ball carrier by throwing one of their own blockers at them.

That impact on the run game was also felt in Kinlaw’s first career playoff game. This is from the 49ers Wild Card win over the Seahawks:

The way I look at is this. When Kinlaw got the ACL reconstruction in October 2021, everything reset. The expectations need to be adjusted accordingly, and fall in line with the timetable that indicates we haven’t gotten to see Kinlaw back at the physical peak that comes from an 18-month recovery window.

Moving Kinlaw off this roster right now offers little in the way of return on investment. Sure, you might net a day three draft pick, or you could free up a couple million dollars of cap space.

But those assets pale in comparison to the potential of Kinlaw progressing through these critical months that await to become an important a team with championship aspirations moving forward.

The talent is there, and the 49ers know it as well as anybody. The smartest thing they can do at this point is remain patient and hope Kinlaw turns a corner this offseason and is an impact player for this team in 2023 and beyond.