Well, well, well, Trent Baalke. A.J. Jenkins, huh?
That San Francisco 49ers general manager sure is proficient at producing mass head-scratching among Niner Nation and draft pundits alike. Analysts across the web projected Jenkins as a mid-second-round prospect.
Jenkins, to his credit, was productive both on the field and in the classroom. The Academic All-Big Ten player hauled in 90 passes for 1,256 yards and eight touchdowns during his senior year. In his other year of starting duties as a junior, he had 56 receptions for 746 yards and seven touchdowns.
He excelled at the NFL combine as well. Running and impressive 4.39-second 40—good for second among wide receivers—he also was a high-ranking performer in the vertical and broad jump.
So, Underwear Olympics aside, how does his skill set translate on the gridiron for the 49ers?
His explosion out of his first step and ability to consistently separate from defensive backs off the line will make quarterback Alex Smith quite happy. He certainly remembers the inadequacy of his receivers in that regard in the NFC Championship Game.
Smith and the rest of the 49ers' West Coast offense will appreciate his balanced underneath route running and understanding of coverage. He’s also capable of tracking the deep ball and contributing on special teams.
Jenkins is much tougher than what his smaller stature (6’0’’, 192 pounds) would otherwise suggest as well. He willingly runs unprotected over the middle, snatching the ball out of the air with precision even when taking a crushing hit.
I foresee Jenkins improving the Red and Gold’s atrocious third-down conversion rate, especially on third-and-short (i.e. quick slants over the middle).
As with any other draft prospect, Jenkins does not arrive without an assortment of weaknesses. He has issues with ball security at times and cornerbacks can throw him off his routes due to a strength deficiency. He also lacks true breakaway speed.
What Jenkins may lack in breakaway speed, he makes up for in hard work and a humble demeanor. ESPN has reported his willing praise of teammates and coaches and his acceptance of criticism. His career numbers suggest yearly improvement.
There’s no doubt that he impressed Baalke in pre-draft interviews. The Niners GM prefers high-character guys, and Jenkins seems to fit the bill.
Whether or not he’ll amount to a significant contributor as a rookie remains to be seen. Learning the ropes from a fellow slot receiver in Mario Manningham should aid his progression.
It’s a rather curious pick by Baalke and Co. with Stephen Hill, Coby Fleener, Cordy Glenn, Janoris Jenkins and numerous other players still available. Many 49ers fans and NFL analysts will indeed be scratching their collective heads until the 2012 season begins and a legitimate assessment can be made.
But in the end, isn't that what happened after most of every draft pick in 2011? Let's trust in Baalke, Harbaugh and the rest of the 49ers staff for the time being.