The newest San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator surprisingly didn’t gush over the cornerstone defenders already in place right away during his presser on Friday, May 12 ahead of the 2023 rookie minicamp.
Rather than begin his conference raving about working with the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa or breakout 2022 Pro Bowler Talanoa Hufanga, Steve Wilks instead focused first on two defenders considered to be on the hot seat this fall: Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and edge rusher Drake Jackson.
Wilks, though, informed the Bay Area media that while both have had a rather slow start to their NFL careers, he’s excited about working with both moving forward.
“Kinlaw has just been tremendous since I’ve been here,” Wilks said. “I mean, the day that I came in on my interview, he was here working out. He has not missed a day of offseason training. So I’m excited to see exactly where he’s going to be.”
Wilks added: “The same thing with Drake. Drake has been here all summer, working out—all spring, rather—doing the things that he needs to do to improve his game. He’s gained a lot of weight. He’s in there with [defensive line coach Kris] Kocurek, and I’m just excited to see exactly what he’s going to do and how he’s going to progress in his second year.”
Who Showed the Most ‘Inconsistency’ From Wilks’ Eyes
Wilks has done a thorough evaluation of his future Niners defenders, including the first draft pick from the 49ers’ 2022 class Jackson.
Wilks, who’s coming over from the Carolina Panthers where he was the defensive coordinator then interim head coach, got the chance to scrutinize Jackson’s first season in the league. The 61st overall pick of last year’s draft class saw action in 15 games — but never got the opportunity to start for the 49ers and ended up with just 14 tackles, eight solo stops and three sacks. What did Wilks see from watching the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Jackson’s first season on film?
“A lot of inconsistency,” the coach responded. “I saw a lot of talent, a lot of skill set, but someone that needs to really, as I just talked about, get a little stronger, get a little bigger.”
Has he noticed a response from that critique?
“He’s working hard,” Wilks sad. “So I’m looking forward to him once again taking that sophomore leap, that second year, and really improving and doing some good things.”
That would bode great for both Wilks and Jackson. On the former’s end, he’ll immediately need someone to step up as the second-best pass rusher to take pressure off Bosa — especially with notable role defenders Samson Ebukam, Jordan Willis and Charles Omenihu all gone via free agency. For the latter, he’s going to suit up for a defensive coordinator whose Panther defense were responsible for 22 of the team’s 35 total sacks. Wilks additionally thrived with a towering and fast defender in Charlotte with 6-foot-5 Brian Burns, who led the team with 12.5 sacks.
GM Hopeful for Kinlaw in ’23
Kinlaw, again, has had a slow start to his career after being drafted in the first round of the 2020 draft originally to replace top interior rusher DeForest Buckner. His career, though, has been marred by knee ailments including last year’s that sidelined him for 11 games.
This offseason, the 49ers opted to not pick up his fifth-year option as he heads to the final year of his rookie deal. He does have a strong endorser, though, in general manager John Lynch.
“JK is doing great. He is really in a good spot,” Lynch said to reporters back on April 25 before the draft. “He looks tremendous. He’s preparing, he’s excited about his preparation. I think it’s a good feeling when you’ve battled injuries year after year and you’re in a healthy spot and you can see it in the way he’s walking around here. He’s just very encouraged and in a really good place. And I think he’s earned that right. He’s worked really hard to be here I think we’re all really encouraged by it and excited to see what can come.”
If healthy, Kinlaw could form an imposing and disruptive duo between himself and prized free agent newcomer Javon Hargrave.