It's Day 1 of the 2012 NFL draft and hours have passed leading up to the 49ers first-round pick, 30th overall. 49ers fans and draft pundits are expecting the franchise to select a wide receiver in the first round, a position that has had multiple prospects projected to the team. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill and LSU's Rueben Randle are the names heavily linked, but when the pick comes in it's neither of the two; it's A.J. Jenkins of Illinois.
That's what many were asking when the team selected Jenkins, a prospect who seemingly had risen up draft boards from the mid-rounds into somehow the first round. Jenkins was nowhere as big as the towering 6'4" Stephen Hill nor as physical after the catch as the bruising Rueben Randle, yet here he was in the first and the other two were not to be selected on Day 1.
However, what the aforementioned two didn't have that Jenkins possessed was the skill set to schematically fit into Greg Roman's offense.
Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh brought back the West Coast offense to San Francisco when they were hired only a year ago and had great success with it, utilizing horizontal stretches and movable chess pieces that enabled pass catchers like A.J. Jenkins to do damage in space.
Jenkins, who has quick feet, lined up in various different alignments during his time at the University of Illinois. In a single game against Penn State last season, he was seen lining up in three different areas of the field:
In the backfield.
Furthermore, the blazing, 6' receiver brings many aspects to the 49ers offense, such as big-play potential. "Shot plays," as NFL Films guru Greg Cosell calls them, are typically defined as plays of 20 yards or more (however, 16-plus yards is more accurate) and put stress on defensive backs, especially the safeties, creating two opportunities: the big play itself and/or space underneath for the rest of the receivers to work with.
Big plays are essential in winning football games in the NFL and it's something that the 49ers struggled to do at times last season. Relying heavily on tight end Vernon Davis in the seam, the 49ers manufactured their big plays through him in a calculated manner. When they received the expected coverage that they identified through the opponent's tendencies in previous games. They simply weren't able to aggressively attack defenses when they wanted to.
However, even though the team added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, they are not the same types of players as Jenkins. Moss is simply unreliable as his effort is inconsistent while Manningham has a tendency to drop crucial passes (despite catching one of the most significant passes in Super Bowl history).
Jenkins has sub-4.4 speed and is able to press defenses vertically because of it. He also can line up in multiple areas of the field, whether it be on the outside or in the slot, and does a quality job of running routes, which results in him creating separation from defenders at both the intermediate and deep levels of the field.
An example of this was against Northwestern last season, when Jenkins was able to find the soft spot against the Wildcats soft zone defense. On a mandatory outside release (MOR), Jenkins worked the sideline on a 'Go' or nine route and stopped in the pocket found in between the cornerback and the rotating safety.
Displaying excellent field awareness to stay in-bounds, Jenkins was able to concentrate on the ball that was thrown to him while also hauling in the pass despite the safety ready to lay a hit on him, showing his toughness.
Moreover, he's not simply a vertical, one-trick pony like the Steelers Mike Wallace, who many wanted the 49ers to pursue; Jenkins can run and create separation on short routes that are key in the West Coast offense.
At Illinois, Jenkins was used on many horizontal routes that are seen in the 49ers offense, such as slants. An instance of this was against Purdue last season, when Jenkins moved the chains for the offense on a three-step slant.
Facing a loosely aligned cornerback, Jenkins closed the gap between the two immediately and looked to create separation by planting his outside foot into the ground and turning to the inside after his initial route stem.
Once he did this, he was able to create separation from the defensive back and open himself up for the pass.
When the pass came in, Jenkins showed off his big, strong and quality hands as he hauled in the pass away from his body.
After the catch, Jenkins also has the ability to do damage, which is one of the most crucial parts of football today. Players have to be able to pick up yards after the catch in order to create explosive plays and this is where Jenkins is a better fit than the previously mentioned Rueben Randle of LSU.
Randle does not have great lateral agility and is tight in the hips, which prevents him from picking up yards after the catch on his own. Rather, he has to be thrown into an open area and then given the room to run after the catch.
However, this is not the case with Jenkins, who is able to put a move on a defender and pick up additional yards regardless of running a route that leads him into open space, such as a slant, or running a snag/spot route (3:04 mark) that asks him to turn his back to the defender and pick up additional yards on his own after the catch.
Last but not least, Jenkins' multiple skill sets, such as his reliable hands, big-play ability and toughness, will go a long way in expanding his role in the offense.
Although he's likely to start off as a role player because of how long it takes the learn the offense (heavy in verbiage) and fully get comfortable in it, I expect him to eventually earn a significant role in the offense as a movable chess piece, moving him all over the formation and creating ideal matchups for him after the snap.
His versatility is a big reason the 49ers selected him, as they love to move around their pass catchers in order to create simplified looks from the defense for the quarterback.