49ers roster: Javon Kinlaw can take a huge leap in 2021

Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw #99 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw #99 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

The 49ers are expecting big things out of their second-year pro, Javon Kinlaw, who’ll be tasked with making substantial improvements from his rookie season.

The San Francisco 49ers were forced to throw their top pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, into the fire almost right away his rookie season.

After taking Kinlaw at No. 14 overall in that year’s draft, the Niners were anticipating rotating Kinlaw in steadily along the defensive line in the wake of trading away his predecessor, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, earlier in the offseason. Reserve defensive tackle Solomon Thomas was expected to get the bulk of early reps in advance of Kinlaw.

But that all evaporated when Thomas suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 2, essentially making Kinlaw a starter by default.

The results were so-so.

Kinlaw, who boasted raw and pure force, was nevertheless a bit unrefined and needed polish. It also didn’t help that Thomas and EDGEs Nick Bosa and Dee Ford were lost in the same game, effectively making Kinlaw one of San Francisco’s best defensive linemen and not a pure backup.

As a result, it shouldn’t be too shocking Kinlaw’s rookie-year stats weren’t overly impressive:

Javon Kinlaw Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/1/2021.

Yet Kinlaw started to make his splash plays late in the season, including that memorable pick-six interception against the Los Angeles Rams.

On top of that, NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger had some noticeably positive things to say about Kinlaw’s rookie season despite the stats being so low, noting via NBC Sports Bay Area, “When I talk to players in this league, one of the guys they say is one of the most powerful players they go against is Kinlaw.”

So, it shouldn’t be too big a surprise if Kinlaw breaks out in a big way in 2021, right?

Niner Noise’s “Who is?” series takes a deeper look.

Why Javon Kinlaw improves with 49ers in 2021

It’s important to note Kinlaw didn’t have the benefit of a full offseason last year because of the pandemic. Only training camp and zero preseason.

That meant he didn’t get the needed field time to work directly with coaches on his technique, counter moves and footwork in preparation for the regular season. Simply put, his strength and overpowering abilities were there, which worked at the college level. But the necessary refinement still needed to happen.

Kinlaw will get that attention this offseason, and that’s what he’s been working on during organized team activities last month.

Read More: Nick Bosa, Javon Kinlaw chemistry should be fun to watch

On top of that, players like Bosa will return, too, taking pressure off Kinlaw from being asked to do too much at the line of scrimmage, freeing the second-year pro up for more favorable one-on-one matchups with Bosa back.

In turn, those opportunities should translate into significantly higher stats.

Why Javon Kinlaw remains flat with 49ers in 2021

Many coaches and analysts think players make their biggest pro leaps between years one and two.

That said, not every player automatically rises from being a work in progress into a potential Pro Bowler, and a “work in progress” is precisely what Kinlaw is right now.

Case in point, Thomas was supposed to be one of those players expected to take a massive leap in year two after being the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 draft. But that never materialized, and Thomas remained little more than a good run-stopping reserve lineman during his four-year 49ers tenure.

Kinlaw still has a long ways to go in terms of his technique, and it’s not likely a single offseason will be enough time for him to perfectly hone some of the negative traits he entered the league with. He needs to perform better against double teams and develop a variety of pass-rush moves, not just rely on the bull rush that worked so well for him at South Carolina.

It might be another full year before those traits are fully refined.

Projected role, impact with 49ers this season

Kinlaw is fully cemented in as the Niners’ primary 3-technique defensive lineman, and he should be in a higher range of snaps than what he saw last year, which was only at 53 percent.

On the plus side, Kinlaw has already shown enough competence to be a quality run-stopping interior lineman, meaning he’ll be out there on base downs. With defensive end Arik Armstead likely shifting inside on pass-rushing downs in sub packages, then with Bosa and EDGE Samson Ebukam outside, the hope will be for Kinlaw to see more of those single-block offensive linemen in front of him.

That should work to his benefit, and the combination of that factor and his own development should translate into a much better campaign in 2021, at least in terms of the raw statistics.

Kinlaw might not ever get close to the prolific kind of play from Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, no. And the former isn’t likely to threaten double-digit sacks either.

Yet if Kinlaw can turn into one of those pocket-wrecking forces, his presence will be more than adequate to help make San Francisco’s D-line great again.

Next. 10 high-profile 49ers draft picks who never panned out. dark