San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw is having fun again.

That wasn’t always the case in his first two NFL seasons, when he constantly struggled with knee issues. Kinlaw underwent ACL reconstruction last season after appearing in just four games. But he looked 100% healthy Saturday night against the Minnesota Vikings and was a force on defense.

Ten months after his surgery, Kinlaw looked disruptive and knocked down Vikings quarterback Kellen Mond for a third sack in the first quarter of the 49ers’ 17-7 win. Kinlaw also entered the backfield later in the game for quarterback pressure.

Kinlaw’s success against the Vikings was an encouraging sight considering what he’s been through since the end of his 2021 season. But he’s shown signs of progress throughout training camp and is visibly happy after his return to the field after a long rehabilitation.

“I was able to do things like that, but when you come into a new league and you learn all the nuances of the game, it throws you off a lot,” Kinlaw said Saturday, via FanGirl Sports Network’s Tracy Sandler. “You kind of forget to play football, just have fun. I feel like I’m finally starting to have fun again, getting nice again now that I’m not in pain anymore.”

Kinlaw played against the Vikings on Saturday night despite the fact that it was a game where the majority of each team’s starters were undressed. With the 49ers set for a quick turnaround this week due to having to face the Houston Texans on Thursday, Kinlaw and the 49ers decided the time was right to make sure he got reps before the end of the preseason. .

“We were very happy for him,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game. “We kept I think all our starters but Javon we wanted to play tonight just because we know [we’re] travel tomorrow, travel Wednesday (to Houston). It’s going to be short, so we thought it would be safer to have his playing time tonight than next week. He did a great job and enjoyed it.”

Due to his extended playing time against the Vikings, Kinlaw is not scheduled to play Thursday against the Texans, a game many 49ers starters are expected to play. The 49ers didn’t seem to want to take a chance in the short week given the travel schedule, so Kinlaw’s next action will likely come in the season opener against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 11.

“I think it’s good,” Shanahan said. “I would have preferred him to wait until next week like most of the other starters, but just with the weird travel schedule for us, we’re coming back at three in the morning tomorrow night. Then we have to leave at Houston on Wednesday, play a game on Thursday, so I can’t really count on it being the smartest thing for him to play on Thursday, so we made sure to get it for him tonight.

With Kinlaw’s preseason likely on the books, he and the 49ers can expect him to be 100% in Week 1 barring any unforeseen circumstances. Kinlaw is fit and in good spirits, and if his health cooperates, he’ll have a great opportunity to show off the skills that made him a 49ers first-round pick in 2020.

“He’s just healthy,” Shanahan said. “He hasn’t been healthy since the Dallas game in 2020. We saw that healthy, he was in great shape last year but his knee was bothering him. So this year he is even better, and he feels good, and we try to maintain that.”

David Bonilla co-wrote this story.

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