Niner Noise takes a look at how the 49ers’ Javon Kinlaw could become a disruptive force for the defense sooner than expected.
First-round NFL Draft picks enter the league with a fair amount of pressure to perform well early in their careers. Even with defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw joining a dominant San Francisco 49ers defensive front, there will undoubtedly be some pressure for him to acclimate quickly to the NFL game and play well.
The 2020 draft’s 14th overall pick from South Carolina has the added task of filling the void created by the trade of dominant defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. Even with immense upside and raw talent, Kinlaw will have a learning curve in making adjustments and understanding the intricacies of the Niners defensive.
Fortunately for him, he will have a terrific supporting cast in fellow defensive linemen Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and D.J. Jones to name a few.
And therein lies the potential advantage Kinlaw has coming to this Super Bowl contender.
At South Carolina, Kinlaw was the best player on that team’s defense, performing exceptionally well against the SEC, arguably college football’s best conference, including against the then third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Although his stat line was solid, not spectacular, (four tackles and a sack) it was apparent he was the best player on the field that day. Playing in arguably the toughest conference in college football in the SEC, he excelled even when facing double teams. Each team the Gamecocks faced would gameplan for him, and yet he was still dominant on a team with marginal talent aside from him.
In San Francisco, he will be surrounded by a supporting cast that was ranked eighth overall in the league in 2019, had 48 sacks, 87 tackles for loss, according to Pro Football Focus, and put constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and offenses.
His role may be limited in the early part of the season as he adjusts to the pro game, especially with Jones sharing time with him. But with Kinlaw’s combination of size (6-foot-5, 319 pounds), speed, strength, and work ethic, his role may very well expand more quickly.
While Buckner had more pass-rush prowess, the exciting aspect of Kinlaw’s game is that he is able to make plays in run defense, push back an offensive lineman into the backfield, clog a running gap, or track a runner downfield. With Kinlaw drawing a lot of attention, the 49ers’ edge rushers ought to feast in those one-on-one matchups. It is his total playmaking ability along the defensive line which could make it tough for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to take him off the field.
In this video link, Kinlaw shows his ability and a continual motor that disrupts the opposition’s offense.
At the very least, he could fill the running lanes and eat up space enough to improve the team’s run defense, which ranked just 22nd in the league last season.
And it looks as if Kinlaw is making quite a first impression on his teammates, including Bosa, who told reporters:
"He’s really hard working in the meeting room. He knows all his stuff really well. He doesn’t seem like a rookie out there. I’ve only been out to a couple walkthroughs so far but he knows his stuff and he doesn’t look like a rookie."
The steep learning curve he will face as a rookie can be partially mitigated by being just one piece of a collective group that is considered to be the team’s greatest strength. In other words, he can just focus on winning individual battles, as opposed to carrying a defense like he often did in college. If he can create double teams on the interior, it will allow Bosa, Armstead, and Ford to spend a good portion of time in the opposing team’s offensive backfield.
Filling the void once occupied by a player of Buckner’s caliber can seem daunting. However, being surrounded by such a talented group that plays as a tight, cohesive unit, Javon Kinlaw has an opportunity to become a disruptive force alongside a talented 49ers defensive front in his rookie season.
Not only would the 49ers potentially have another defensive rookie of the year, but they may also be able to claim a sixth Lombardi Trophy for one of the NFL’s most storied franchises.