NFL Draft 2012: 49ers Surprise and Select Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterApril 27, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, IN - OCTOBER 08:  A.J. Jenkins #8 of the Illinois Illini catches a pass while defended by Lawrence Barnett #23 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the game at Memorial Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Bloomington, Indiana.  Illinois won 41-20.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Coming into the 2012 NFL draft, one name that people expected to hear on Friday (when Rounds 2 and 3 are selected) was Illinois WR A.J. Jenkins.

Jenkins had a monster year for Illinois in 2011, catching 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. His production tapered off as Illinois slumped down the stretch, though. In the last six games, he averaged only six catches per game and caught one total touchdown.

Between the disappointing end to his (and Illinois') season and a lack of ideal size, Jenkins' draft stock was never exceedingly high ( says he has "fifth-round value" and manages to make even that sound optimistic).

Nonetheless, production matters, and Jenkins ran a blistering 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, so his potential was evident.

What few people expected, however, was San Francisco making Jenkins its first-round pick, which is what happened at Thursday's first round of the NFL draft.

Jenkins himself didn't even expect it, according to The Washington Post. He was reportedly in the bathroom when a family member told him that his phone was ringing.

Via the Post:

'I sprinted because I didn’t know if they were joking or not because during the middle of the draft my cousin had called my phone, but he was playing with me. I thought it was another joke and it’s just crazy.'

Jenkins wasn’t sure whether he spoke to Coach Jim Harbaugh or General Manager Trent Baalke. Not that it mattered at that moment (as long as it wasn’t his cousin again). 'It was the 49ers. I was so lost for words. I was so out of words. I’m just like, wow, first round?' he said. 'I just heard a voice that said, ‘We’re taking you at pick 30.’ I just started tearing up. I’m just so excited right now. I’m so excited right now.'

Call it a reach or whatever, but San Francisco needed a long-term solution at wide receiver, and Michael Crabtree doesn't look like that solution. But is Jenkins?

Whether Jenkins succeeds in San Francisco depends on how the Niners use him. He does not excel at beating press coverage, and a cornerback can easily disrupt his timing by getting in his face at the snap.

Give Jenkins a free release, though, and he can use his speed to get behind defenses.

Jenkins' adjustment skills are above average, which is good news if Alex Smith continues to display uneven accuracy. Jenkins isn't afraid to lay out for a pass or take a big hit after the catch, though he's not really physically cut out to work the middle in the NFL.

His route-running isn't especially good, but he's not sloppy either.

Jenkins' speed is especially a benefit on drag routes, as he can simply use his sub-4.4 speed to outrun his man to the far side, where hopefully the other receivers have run off any other defenders.

Despite this, he's not really a "circus catch" type of wideout on deep passes—though that may have as much to do with accuracy issues on the part of Illinois QBs Nathan Scheelhaase and Riley O'Toole as anything else.

There is potential in this pick by the 49ers; there's no doubt about that.

Jenkins has shown that he can handle being a top target in an offense, and his speed should open up more options for the 49ers even if he isn't getting the ball more than a couple of times per game.