The 49ers defense was exceptional in 2019, so why not come up with some bold predictions how this unit fares in 2020?
In 2018, many a San Francisco 49ers fan was calling for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to be fired.
After all, the Niners defense that season wasn’t exactly pretty, generating a league-low seven forced turnovers and only two interceptions en route to being the league’s 28th-ranked scoring defense.
Then, after San Francisco brought aboard linebacker Kwon Alexander and edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, things changed completely and ultimately led to the 49ers boasting one of the NFL’s best defenses en route to the team’s appearance in Super Bowl LIV.
For the most part, the Niners defense under Saleh will remain the same heading into 2020, albeit with one massive change: losing Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner via a trade to the Indianapolis Colts. Buckner was a key figurehead within the defensive line, and the hope will be his replacement, rookie defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, can fill the void quickly.
Kinlaw’s development will be a story to watch this season, just as whether or not San Francisco can maintain the same kind of prowess.
With that, Niner Noise comes up with five bold predictions, not simply easy-to-reach goals, for Saleh’s bunch this season.
Starting off with Kinlaw.
No. 5: 49ers’ Javon Kinlaw Wins Defensive Rookie of the Year
In 2019, Bosa got the nod for the league’s top defensive rookie after an impressive nine-sack campaign.
So, is it too hard to envision a scenario where the 49ers replicate this in back-to-back years?
Kinlaw achieving the same mark would take a lot of work. But he already has his endorsers, including linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who told 49ers.com’s Keiana Martin he believes the rookie “very well may be the Defensive Rookie of the Year.”
Lofty expectations, yes. Yet there are reasons to believe this has a good chance of happening.
Kinlaw, like Bosa before him, joins a stacked defensive line equipped with four other first-round NFL Draft talents, also including Ford, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas. Football Outsiders ranked this group second best in the league last year against the pass, and that’s where defensive linemen get their attention.
With opposing blockers likely focusing most of their attention on Ford, Bosa and Armstead, Kinlaw is likely to see a lot of single teams, meaning he’ll have an excellent chance to provide some serious interior pass-rushing thump.
If he gets close to Bosa’s rookie-level production, it’ll be hard for the voters to overlook Kinlaw for the accolade.