When John Lynch, general manager of the San Francisco 49ers, agreed to trade defense attorney DeForest Buckner for a first choice against the Indianapolis Colts, anyone standing in to replace DeFo had to fill big shoes.
This responsibility fell on the product Javon Kinlaw from South Carolina, which was voted 14th overall in the NFL Draft last year.
Buckner had a great season with the Colts. The 26-year-old stabilized a very good Indy defense and ended the year with 58 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 26 QB hits.
The reason Buckner was transferred last off-season had nothing to do with production, but with the business side of the game. With so many well-known freelance agents on the horizon, Lynch had to decide whether to pay the DeFo market value or move on from the selection for the first round in 2016.
Nobody expected Kinlaw to be as dominant as Buckner right away. The pandemic thwarted the NFL’s off-season plans, hindering the time Kinlaw could work directly with coaches.
Nevertheless, the 23-year-old has proven his potential in his year as a professional. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh praised Kinlaw, but also admitted that he was still in the works.
“Regarding Javon, I think his track this year and what he did as a rookie was great …
I just think the second most difficult position behind the quarterback is the center-back. There’s another animal in there. You can’t bully people like you have all your life. You go through high school, college, you’re just bigger, stronger, faster than everyone else. Then you come to the NFL and the blocking combinations are different. The speed is different. The power is different. Their pass rushing is different because these guys are playing one game within a game. So there is an enormous learning curve when it comes to playing at a very consistent level. “
Kinlaw’s rookie numbers compare to Buckner’s first season in the league.
Kinlaw: 33 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, four QB hits, PFF score 54.1, 53% of total defensive snaps.
Buckner: 73 tackles, 6.0 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 18 QB hits, PFF grade 71.6, 87% of total defensive snaps.
Buckner played a more defensive ending during his rookie campaign, which allowed him to come to QB more often while Kinlaw lined up more inside. Plus, the 2016 49ers were a terrible team that featured in Chip Kelly’s only season as head coach with much less talent than the Niners currently on the squad.
Kinlaw was a lot rougher than Buckner. His pass-rushing moves weren’t as nifty as Buckner’s, and his fundamentals weren’t on the same level.
Kinlaw’s four QB hits finished fourth among rookie center-backs. But he lacked a plan or a counter as a pass rusher. He would plunge straight into the defender, and while Kinlaw has very active hands, he would barely make up ground for the passerby.
Though strong as an ox, Kinlaw has been ousted far too many times this season. Either he wasn’t going to stay on the court and let the doubles team move him around or Kinlaw’s pad level would get him in trouble.
In his sophomore year, Kinlaw should work hard to come up with a signature move in the off-season. Once he has developed a focal point, he can work on setting up a meter.
No matter how much strength you have, the lowly man will always win in football. He’s already proven that he has the brute strength, but refining his technique will go a long way towards ensuring that he doesn’t stay too upright against the opposing offensive lineman.
Kinlaw has all the tools to grow into a standout center-back and the Niners brass has the confidence he will have.
In what areas do you think Kinlaw needs to improve the most? Do you think he’ll make a big jump next season?