Every offseason, teams are forced to make difficult decisions, from re-signing players to drafting collegiate prospects and which coaches to retain.
The San Francisco 49ers will pay Brandon Aiyuk this offseason. That’s not a matter of if, whether how much.
The player the Niners drafted before Aiyuk, Javon Kinlaw, had unrealistic expectations. Injuries robbed Kinlaw of a healthy rookie contract. Finally, at 26, we’ve seen the most flashes from Kinlaw during his tenure as a Niner.
Re-signing players like Kinlaw around and maintaining the depth on the roster is a close second to keeping your stars in the building. We’ve seen championship rosters and windows close because injuries are inevitable, and if you don’t have depth, you won’t win in the NFL.
Kinlaw has been a valuable role player for the 49ers this season and stepped in as a starter when Arik Armstead or Javon Hargrave were unavailable. During the two playoff games, Kinlaw’s been the most effective defensive lineman on the team.
I sat down with Javon on Wednesday to learn more about his game. This is his fourth year, but 2023 was the first healthy off-season for Kinlaw. He said, “To tell you the truth, last offseason was the first time I could work on my game since my rookie year.”
From March through the spring, most players are in a position to work on their pass-rushing technique or improving against the run. Kinlaw lived in rehab as a rookie. He hasn’t been afforded the chance to develop as a player.
One of the biggest differences between college and the NFL is that it’s all business as a pro during the season. The off-seasofn is the only time you get to work on your craft. So, this past April, instead of running on the treadmill and doing physical therapy, Kinlaw was a football player for the first time as a professional.
He’s confident that’ll lead to him looking like the player we’ve seen in the playoffs. “So who knows what the next year’s gonna look like, and the next year, now that I’m finally healthy.”
Another change from South Carolina to San Francisco has been the style of play and what each team asks their players to do. With the Gamecocks, Kinlaw was more of a read-and-react type of player. But with the 49ers, it’s all about firing off the ball, pinning your ears back, and being aggressive.
Kinlaw plays both 1 and 3-technique with the Niners. I asked him if where he plays on the field impacts his production:
“Honestly, our technique is all the same. You’re just trying to attack, penetrate. Again, being healthy allowed me to hone in on the aspect of attack style of defense. In college, I didn’t really feel like I knew what that was. We were playing read defense, but attacking at the same time.”
That’s effectively two different languages. At South Carolina, it was “if they do this, you do that.” Now, the person in front of Kinlaw doesn’t matter. When the 49ers say, “It’s all about us,” that philosophy applies to the defensive line and their tactics.
Kinlaw said, “Now, it don’t matter what they do. You’re going here and attacking them. And I’ve finally had time to work on it. Like, work on it, work on it, work on it. Rep after rep after rep. Around this time of year, that’s when it pays off the most.”
Kinlaw leads all defensive tackles in tackles during the playoffs. He has one more tackle than Justin Madubuike of the Baltimore Ravens, despite playing 50 fewer snaps. Kinlaw is also second in win percentage as a pass rusher at his position, only to Vita Vea in the postseason. So, he’s not wrong when he says his work is paying off.
Tying Kinlaw tied his progress back to health when I asked him if he feels different as a player. He said, “It’s all about muscle memory, honestly. The more you can stack, the better. When you get hurt, like my last year, and you miss 12 weeks like I did last year, how much can you get done?”
Javon laughed when I told him about his postseason stats. “I don’t really look at that. I just wanna help the team win, you know? It ain’t really about individual things at this point. We all got the common goal right now. And that’s to win a Super Bowl. And if that’s what it takes to win the Super Bowl, then I guess I’m gonna have to keep leading some categories.”
What I see, or you see, is different from what a coach or the players themselves see. Where has Javon improved the most since Week 1 with an entire offseason of health under his belt? His answer was more than just physical attributes.
“My pad level has improved every week. Getting my hands out in front of me has improved every week. Kinda noticing some keys in the backfield to tip a play off has gotten better each week. Playing some teams that, you might see the same concepts. Teams that try to run the same plays on us. So you see certain sets, and you can kinda get a feel on what to key. That comes with reps as well. Of course, I’m a power rusher, but going through the year, I kind of feel where I need to use my power and press the pocket.”
I pushed back on Kinlaw’s answer. I told him I disagreed with his assessment of himself as a player. Javon has evolved into much more than a power rusher. This season, he’s winning with quickness. He didn’t have the same type of juice off the ball in seasons past because he wasn’t healthy. There’s a noticeable difference in Kinlaw coming off the ball this year.
To last in this league beyond your rookie contract, you must evolve, and Javon knows that. “I like the way you said that. I’m always trying to evolve my game. Power is my first thing, and people know. But even though they know, they still can’t do nothing with it. I’m just being honest.”
The great players are always studying other greats. Kinlaw hasn’t earned the title of a “great” yet, but if his study habits are any indication, he’s well on his way. I asked who Kinlaw watches, and he didn’t let me finish my sentence. “Armstead. I study Armstead 100 percent.”
I would love to get my hands on the team grades because it’s painfully evident that this defense goes from above average to elite when No. 91 is on the field. When asked what Arik does that makes Kinlaw watch him weekly, Javon said, “The way he uses his power.”
“He doesn’t just go out there and throw his power around. He’s very precise. He uses angles a lot to use his power. He gets extension. He’s damn near 7’. His long arm is crazy.”
Kinlaw said his go-to move is a bullrush, but he’s learned how to counter off that, in large part by watching Armstead.
The next progression for Kinlaw is obvious: Staying healthy. “When I’m healthy, I can make the strides. And I think people are gonna start to see that.”
Armstead is one of the leaders on the team, but he and Nick Bosa are the “big brothers” in the defensive line room. After I told Armstead that Kinlaw studies him, I asked how proud he was of what Javon’s accomplished this season:
“Very proud. He’s put in a lot of hard work that I’ve seen up close and personal. To see him and his determination and everything he’s dealt with in his career, to be able to get on the other side of that and play some really good football, I think the sky is the limit for him, and he’s just getting started.”
The follow-up was reciting Kinlaw’s playoff stats and if Arik has seen this talent in Javon from Day 1:
“Yeah, I think he’s always capable of this. It’s hard when you’re dealing with injuries and not able to become that player that you envisioned because you can’t play and can’t get the reps. You’re not feeling like yourself.
So, for him to be in a position now and playing great, it’s just a testament to him fighting through adversity in his career that a lot of people would have folded to. He’s put himself in a good position to become a better and better player as his career progresses.”
If he has another productive playoff game, a second contract with the 49ers feels inevitable — unless another team sees what the Niners see. But a healthy Kinlaw has shown why the 49ers invested in him in the first round.