49ers roster 2023: Javon Kinlaw a case study in 'what could have been'

It's hard to call Javon Kinlaw's time with the 49ers anything else but disappointing, and one can only wonder if things could have been better if it hadn't been for chronic knee issues.
San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (99)
San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (99) / Michael Zagaris/GettyImages

Injuries ultimately got in the way of Javon Kinlaw being a true impact force for the 49ers over the last three seasons.

The San Francisco 49ers have prepared themselves to bid farewell to their top pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.

Heading into his fourth season as a pro, the former South Carolina Gamecock isn't going to have his fifth-year option exercised, as general manager John Lynch pointed out earlier this offseason, meaning Kinlaw will either be a free agent once 2024 rolls around.

Or he'll potentially (albeit not likely) re-sign with the Niners on a cheap, cheap deal.

It's been a frustrating three-plus years for Kinlaw ever since San Francisco drafted him No. 14 overall.




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After showing some modest potential his rookie year amid what was an injury-plagued season for the 49ers in 2020, Kinlaw's knee issues began to flare up in 2021, limiting him to just four games.

Following offseason surgery that was supposed to alleviate all concerns about his knees, the same sort of issues popped up again last year, ultimately keeping the 6-foot-5 and 319-pound defender off the field for all but six games during the regular season.

When Kinlaw did return, it was visibly clear he was being pushed around by opposing offensive linemen with relative ease.

It was never a question of talent. Kinlaw has always had it.

Instead, the ability to stay on the field has been massively lacking. And with the Niners' blockbuster free-agent addition of former Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, Kinlaw's role with San Francisco only takes a further hit.

How much are the 49ers paying Javon Kinlaw in 2023?

Kinlaw enters his fourth year as a pro on the final year of his rookie contract, which will pay out up to $2.722 million as part of the initial $15.5 million deal he signed back in 2020, according to Spotrac.

Of the money he's set to make this season, $4.9 million would be dead money if the 49ers elected not to add him to the 53-man roster to begin the season.

Even though Kinlaw's role will be reduced, that figure pretty much guarantees he'll have a spot, if healthy.

What will 49ers do with Javon Kinlaw now that Javon Hargrave is in town?

The Niners have always prioritized depth and prowess with their defensive line, which helps explain why Hargrave was such a key addition.

Hargrave will start on the interior alongside San Francisco's longest-tenured player, Arik Armstead, while edge Nick Bosa will be on the outside. It's likely second-year pro Drake Jackson occupies the second outside edge-rushing spot.

That leaves Kinlaw in a bit of a predicament.

Read more: What Javon Hargrave signing means for underachieving Javon Kinlaw

No longer a starter, Kinlaw can still nevertheless be a decent rotational player who can spell either Armstead or Hargrave at various points to keep the full crop of interior defenders fresh.

If Kinlaw embraces that role, he might telegraph a fully healthy 2023 campaign into a nice contract next offseason.

One that'll likely not be with the 49ers, though, who'll be wary of all those injuries he suffered and dealt with over the course of his time in Northern California.

Either way, one can only wonder how things would have transpired if Kinlaw had stayed healthy.

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