Javon Kinlaw

Why 49ers' Kinlaw could be coveted player in NFL free agency

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SANTA CLARA — Javon Kinlaw entered the 2023 season with a lot of uncertainty about his NFL future.

But the defensive tackle is putting himself in position to be a sought-after free agent after the 49ers declined to pick up his fifth-year option in the offseason.

“Yeah, no doubt about it,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Friday. “Everyone around the league knows the talent he was coming out of college.”

The talent was so great the 49ers selected him with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, using the selection acquired when the team traded DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts. Kinlaw was expected to replace Buckner, one of the team's leaders and most consistent performers.

Instead, Kinlaw's first three seasons were plagued by knee injuries that limited him to just 10 games the past two campaigns.

Finally, the knee situation was solved, resulting in reconstructive surgery. And for the first time in his career, Kinlaw has not missed any practice time or game action this season.

“It becomes a question of not how good can he get, but whether he can even play or not,” Shanahan said. “What he did this whole offseason was as big of a commitment as anyone as I've ever been around.

“You're still so nervous for the guy because they can't control their injuries. But for him to be able to do this and play, now the tape looks [like] what people anticipated and the whole league has respect and he's only going to get better.” 

The 49ers will count heavily on Kinlaw in their Week 15 game against the Arizona Cardinals, with starting defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave out for the game due to injuries. Kinlaw will make his third start of the season.

With four games remaining, Kinlaw has posted career highs with 2.5 sacks -- all coming in the past two games -- and five quarterback hits.

His improvements have shown up in the run game, too. With his knee issues apparently cleared up, Kinlaw can bend and maintain his leverage without getting blown off the ball.

“He’s strung together all these practices,” Shanahan said. “When you're talented and you work hard, you only get better when you practice.”

Because the 49ers declined the fifth-year option, Kinlaw is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. His injury-free season could set him up to be a coveted player on the free-agent market.

The 49ers appear interested in keeping him around, but with so many other high-priced players on the team, they run the risk of him signing elsewhere and seeing his best football come with another team.

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