Five years removed from the draft that saw them select the recently extended Arik Armstead, the San Francisco 49ers are again being connected to a defensive lineman who figures to be an unpopular pick among fans. Following the trade that sent defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts, several mock drafts have the Niners selecting a prospective replacement, South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw, with the 13th overall pick they acquired in the deal.
It is a selection that would underwhelm those who have their hearts set on the Niners using that pick on one of the consensus top-three receivers – CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III.
However, just as the Armstead selection had merits that took half a decade to bear fruit, so too are there plenty of reasons why Kinlaw makes sense for San Francisco.
Part of what made Buckner such a nightmare for opposing offensive lines to deal with from the 3-technique position was his combination of length, power, and quickness.
Kinlaw, despite not producing at the elite level perhaps expected of a top-15 pick – he had 17 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in three seasons with the Gamecocks – possesses long arms and regularly flashed the latter two traits as he earned first-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-SEC honors in 2019.
Power and quickness were key to Kinlaw's strong performances against premier SEC competition in Alabama and Georgia.
Kinlaw twice got to Tua Tagovailoa in the defeat of Alabama, first doing so as he quickly got his arms into the pads of the center and knocked him off his feet before bending back to the quarterback to complete the sack.
Georgia's offensive line had their own difficulties in dealing with Kinlaw's heavy hands, which were crucial to this sack in the win over the Bulldogs that saw him walk the guard back to Jake Fromm, never allowing him to anchor.
He combined his brute force with lateral agility to disrupt the quarterback on stunts against both Alabama and Georgia. The usage of a rip move was key to him getting to Tagovailoa for a second time, while Fromm threw a critical pick-six after Kinlaw's bull rush of Isaiah Wilson forced the quarterback into a terrible decision.
When unable to get to the quarterback, Kinlaw demonstrated the ability to impact the game in other ways, doing so on this play in the game with Missouri. Kinlaw simply tosses a 330-pound guard to one side and gets his hands up to deflect Kelly Bryant's pass.
Kinlaw's near 35-inch arms also allow him to work off blocks and impact the run game, as he did on this stop against Alabama, on which he rapidly disengaged and found the football to restrict the back to a short gain.
For all his obvious upside, there are legitimate concerns around Kinlaw's game. Though he has the rip move in his weaponry and occasionally used the swim, he is still very much developing his pass-rush arsenal.
Ensuring he stays on his feet will surely be a focus for whichever team drafts Kinlaw, who spent far too many plays on the turf after losing balance.
The most significant issue for detractors of the idea of San Francisco selecting Kinlaw is consistency. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh would not be getting a prospect who has proven himself to be an every-down difference-maker. Indeed, the flashes of dominance are just that, flashes, with a lack of consistency evidenced by the mediocre production.
Should he be picked by the 49ers, Kinlaw will arguably be landing with the ideal defense on which to consistently harness his undoubted potential. Given the depth the Niners have on the D-line, he would likely not be asked to take on Buckner's full workload right off the bat as a rookie.
The X-factor, though, is defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who has been roundly praised by players for his intensity since joining the staff. Kocurek would unquestionably relish the opportunity to work with a player with the physical gifts and near-relentless motor Kinlaw possesses.
Kocurek has been able to bring the best out of the defensive line in his short time with the Niners, and should he succeed in doing so with Kinlaw, the 49ers would have a starting defensive tackle on a rookie contract, setting up the position group that laid the foundation for last year's Super Bowl very well for the future.
If the 49ers select Kinlaw next week, it'll likely provoke the same lukewarm reaction Armstead's arrival received. Niners fans may be tired of San Francisco selecting defensive linemen high and addressing receiver further down the draft, but it is an approach that has paid huge dividends for this front office. With the coaching staff and the talent they can put around him, Kinlaw would be entering an excellent situation to provide the 49ers with another substantial return on a D-Line investment.
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