I remember sitting there in the third row, seated on the isle, as the introductory press conference for the 2020 Senior Bowl began. Director of the Senior Bowl, Jim Nagy, spoke first, welcoming us to Mobile, AL and the yearly All-Star event. Shortly after him, one of the week’s biggest-name players sat in front of the mic to address the media: South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
In the eye test, this 6-foot-6, 310-pound defensive lineman looked the part of a first-round pick. As he opened his mouth to speak and addressed questions for the 20 minutes that followed, he sure sounded like one, too. Kinlaw spoke of what motivated him, what drove him to be great. In his answers, he told the crowd the stories of how he grew up in northeast Washington, D.C. homeless, at times. He talked about how his family barely had what they needed to even get by, and how that didn’t always include electricity or running water. He talked about those times as motivation, as something that continues to keep him focused as he works toward his goal of playing professional football and providing a better life now for his family.
We had all seen the tape of Kinlaw wrecking offensive lines for years at South Carolina. And yet it was his words at the podium that gave everyone in that audience the confidence of him being a first-round pick.
Three months later, that came to fruition.
After trading back one spot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the San Francisco 49ers selected Kinlaw at No. 14 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. The selection of Kinlaw to the 49ers was something that was talked about for weeks before the draft began. As mock drafts were written and potential targets were identified, there were a handful of scenarios that painted a picture of the 49ers drafting a player like Kinlaw or fellow defensive tackle Derrick Brown. The reason for this was because the 49ers had an extra first-round pick after they traded away interior defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts.
But for a team that was coming off a run to the Super Bowl, would they really trade away an All-Pro defensive tackle just to draft another one—a younger, less experienced one? If they were loading up for another deep playoff run, that didn’t seem like a step in the right direction to make them better in the short term. So while there were some that suggested a replacement for Buckner at defensive tackle could be the pick for the 49ers, there were others there to counter it.
In the end, they did, in fact, target that hole left by Buckner with a younger player who they believed could give them good play on a cheaper deal than the monster four-year, $84 million contract extension Buckner signed that offseason.
It was out with the old and in with the new. So how has that new been since?
Pop on any clip of Kinlaw (No. 99), any clip at all, and you’ll see this dude working. Kinlaw’s motor runs at 100% every single play and that makes life hell for offensive linemen. As you can see in the clip above, though New Orleans Saints guard Cesar Ruiz was staying in front of Kinlaw, he wasn't having a good time doing it. The arms, the hands, the legs were all engaged and attacking at all times. But the timing and controlled nature of each wasn’t quite there.
Right now, Kinlaw makes life hell for offensive linemen due to how much strength he commands from them to block him. However, he’s still reckless in his technique, and that is making life easier for offensive linemen than it has to be to ultimately stay in front of him. Kinlaw is winning a ton of reps in the first second of the play, but you have to continue to win in seconds two and three to really get home and make big impacts.
Kinlaw did show flashes of some pass rush moves against the Saints. In the clip above, we saw him go for an aggressive club-rip. Though he wasn’t able to corner the offensive lineman around his hip like he wanted to, that speed of the hands and the arms were there for Kinlaw. That tells me it’s more about him honing hand placement and technique than it is an inability for him to perform the move. You’d much rather ask a guy to dial things down as opposed to try to get them to move faster.
This rookie season is definitely a learning year for Kinlaw, in that he has to be more than just big and fast to win in this league. But signs like that play show he’s working to learn how to be better.
When it comes to run defense, Kinlaw is still learning when you want to shoot a gap and when you need to keep that gap discipline. I thought there were a handful of instances where Kinalw showed good growth in this area.
Kinlaw can really get off the ball for a player his size. College interior offensive linemen weren’t used to it, so that has become Kinlaw’s bread and butter. But not every play calls for getting into the backfield as soon as possible. I definitely subscribe to the motto that disruption is production, but it is important not to just abandon your spot on a run play. Kinlaw is finding that balance between both.
The main takeaway from watching Kinlaw’s film is that the 49ers got a good one. Is he Buckner? Certainly not this year, but anyone expecting it to be a 1-for-1 trade early in Kinlaw’s career was asking to be disappointed. But Kinlaw is absolutely showing the signs of a player who is going to be a guy opposing offensive lines have to circle in their preparation every week as a potential game wrecker for them. He just needs some more time to hone in that elite athleticism to attack the offensive line’s in the ways that hurt them most on both run and pass downs.