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5 winners from training camp: Javon Kinlaw has a chance to be the most-improved player

Javon Kinlaw isn’t the only player who has impressed. You could say the same for the backup running backs, the right tackle, and a UDFA.

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

After spending a week in the Bay Area watching the 49ers practice, I was able to answer some questions that I had about the roster. After three or four practices, it gets a bit repetitive and drills begin to look the same and the matchups have the same result.

Let’s go over some winners from the first week and a half or so of the Niners training camp. No “losers” today.


Brandon Aiyuk

It wouldn’t be fair to list another player first. Aiyuk is coming off a 1,000 yard season where he caught 68 percent of his targets and was ninth in DVOA among all wide receivers.

Down-to-down consistency was one of Aiyuk’s biggest knocks during his first couple of seasons in the NFL. From blocking to focus drops, it didn’t always feel like Aiyuk was locked in.

Aiyuk had over 30 receptions in the week I was there, with a handful of those resulting in touchdowns and over half of those ending in a first down. Objectively, Aiyuk was uncoverable, unstoppable, and the best player on the field every day.

If we’re going based on what’s happened during training camp, a 1,000 yard season would be a disappointment for Aiyuk.

D’Shawn Jamison

One of the most pleasant surprises in camp has been an undrafted free agent. There aren’t many spots up for grabs on the roster, but with Darrell Luter Jr. on the PUP list, there’s an opening in the two-deep roster at cornerback. Jamison, more than any other non-starter, has taken advantage.

Going through my notes and every day you’ll see, “No. 22 makes a play on the ball,” or “No. 22 with a pass breakup.” Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and head coach Kyle Shanahan have singled Jamison out, as has Aiyuk.

Here’s Shanahan on Monday talking about Jamison:

“Yeah, he’s made some plays out there, and I think he keeps getting better. He takes coaching very well. He’s been mixing up his techniques and really doing what [defensive coordinator] Steve [Wilks] and [defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks] DB ask of him. And the receivers are noticing him, the offense is noticing him, so I’ve been real encouraged with him.”

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener was when Charvarius Ward said that he was learning how to play a specific technique from Jamison.

Javon Kinlaw

It should be noted that Kinlaw has gone against the second-team offensive line, but he’s winning non-stop. Kinlaw looks body type looks more cut and trim. He’s fully healthy, and it’s noticeable.

Kinlaw played 141 snaps in the final six games of 2022 after suffering a Grade 2 ACL sprain in Week 3. That was following an ACL reconstruction surgery in October 2021. Athletes are affected by injuries differently, especially the ones over 300 pounds.

Dr. Nirav K Pandya, who is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, told Jordan Elliott in March that most people get back to normal around the 18th month after ACL surgery. For Kinlaw, that was April 29.

Kinlaw looks much-improved and appears to have regained some of his explosiveness pre-injury. He’s winning with power, pushing the pocket, and even finishing occasionally with a sack.

I’m not saying Kinlaw will be a double-digit sack player in 2023, but his role will help him be productive and likely keep him healthy for the duration of the season. There are no expectations for Kinlaw, which may be the best thing for Javon in what could be his final year as a Niner.

Colton McKivitz

McKivitz is here to stay. When you’re playing opposite of Trent Williams, you’re going to see the opponents’ best edge rusher, plenty of blitzes your way, and the rest of the kitchen sink the defense will throw at you.

McKivitz more than held his own during 1-on-1s, which is a drill tailor-made for the defense to win. Sure, there were sacks allowed, but practice is for Colton to figure out what he can and can’t get away with.

Offensive line play goes much deeper than seeing if a player allowed a sack. McKivtiz’s run angles improved as the week went along, and there were days when the offense left him on an island, and he had no troubles during team drills.

McKivitz is one of the biggest question marks heading into the regular season at right tackle for the 49ers, but he looks the part as we near the midway point in training camp.

Marcelino McCrary-Ball

The 49ers have been bitten by injuries at linebacker, but the backup’s play has been so superb, that we’ve hardly noticed. Azeez Al-Shaair isn’t here anymore if Dre Greenlaw goes down.

The 49ers drafted two linebackers just in case, but it’s No. 40, Marcelino McCrary-Ball, who is running with the second team — he was with the starters on the day Greenlaw sat out — and grabbing the headlines over Jalen Graham and Dee Winters.

McCrary-Ball sees the field better, flies around, can flat out fly, but, above all, has a chance to be special in coverage. Like most, if not all linebackers on the roster, MMB played safety in college. It shows.

If we could see which players had the most pass breakups during training camp, McCrary-Ball would be in the top five.

Backup running backs

Elijah Mitchell suffered his second injury of the offseason, and it looks as though the Niners may need to rely on another backup for Christian McCaffrey. The team worked out four running backs on Tuesday, which is more evidence that Mitchell could be out for an extended time.

Thankfully, the running backs drafted in 2022 are ready to share the workload and take some of the pounding off McCaffrey.

Jordan Mason played bully ball whenever he had a carry. But you forget how fast he is since Mason is known for pushing the pile and running through tackles. Speaking of speed, Ty Davis-Price is faster.

I was hesitant to give TDP his flowers as I saw some of the same habits that held him down last year early on last week. I wanted to see more, and Davis-Price proved to be more decisive, which was an issue a year ago.

Both backs are trusting what they see, hitting the hole, and getting downhill. That takes some of the weight off the offensive line’s shoulders.

McCaffrey will get the lion’s share of the touches out of the backfield, but the 49ers investments in the backfield should pay off in Year 2.