When the San Francisco 49ers selected A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick, a dichotomy of predictable expectation and virulent skepticism surrounded the first-round draftee.
The prevailing sentiments materialized to the effect of, “He had better upgrade the wide receiver position in a big way,” versus, “This guy is nowhere near worth a first-round pick.”
Even those analysts disseminating more reasonable projections believed that Jenkins needed to legitimately contribute to an area of considerable deficiency for the 49ers in 2011.
Yet, with the signing of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and—what’s most pertinent to this discussion—the emergence of Kyle Williams, Jenkins was rendered a future prospect rather than current asset. The 49ers deemed their receiving corps and kick returning personnel wholly suitable without the first-rounder.
Williams, in particular, was miles ahead of the rookie in terms of playbook knowledge, versatility and sheer NFL readiness as San Francisco’s No. 4 wideout. He was indeed the fundamental key to Jenkins being inactive through the first 12 weeks of the 2012 season.
However, this whole situation gained an entirely new dynamic with Williams injuring his left knee in Sunday’s matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Early reports indicate a possibility of torn ligaments (h/t Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News).
This entails a dismal reality for Williams. The third-year receiver was enjoying a career-year by nearly surpassing his 2011 receiving totals in two fewer games (officially 212 yards and a touchdown). He was also the leading contributor on kickoff returns.
Simply put, he was a valuable piece to the 49ers’ puzzle.
What regrettably exists as misfortune for Williams is a potentially big opportunity for Jenkins.
The rookie could conceivably move from sixth to fourth on the receiving depth chart, and even insert his name in the discussion of backup returners.
San Francisco lists Ted Ginn as the team’s top return-man and No. 5 WR. That said, Ginn has been a remarkable disappointment after returning from an early-season injury.
His averages on both kickoff and punt returns rank below Williams’ marks. He also has just one reception and one rushing attempt for a grand total of seven yards worth of offensive contributions.
Worse yet, Ginn appears visibly shaky and apprehensive compared to his usual fear-inducing presence on the gridiron (in the return game that is).
Could one then reasonably deduce that Jenkins would fall in line behind Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham? Or would he remain inactive with increased action going to said receivers and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker (if Walker’s injury doesn’t prove significant)?
Unfortunately for Jenkins, the latter of those two possibilities will likely become reality.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has yet to play any of the 49ers’ seven picks from this year’s draft. He and the organization presumably concluded that the team was set all positions across the board (injuries to particular draftees notwithstanding).
The 2012 draft class was designed for future depth purposes only.
With that in mind, Jenkins will not suit up at wide receiver this year. Williams’ injury might only compel the coaching staff to use Jenkins in an experimental basis if the 49ers clinch the best possible playoff berth before the regular season ends.
But even that scenario is a huge stretch.
So, what is A.J. Jenkins’ role with the 49ers if Kyle Williams is lost for the season, you ask?
Occupying one of the seven slots on the Inactives sheet, I’d answer. Jenkins’ role lies completely in Year 2 and beyond.
It just remains to be seen what that beyond entails for the young man known only in the NFL world as No. 30 overall.
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