5 Reasons the 49ers Top Rookies Will Now See Playing Time
To this point in the San Francisco 49ers' season, an abundance of depth throughout the roster has prevented the team's top rookies from garnering so much as a single snap of playing time.
Their wait may finally be coming to an end.
Prepare for wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James, the 49ers' first and second-round draft picks (respectively), to be making their NFL debuts very soon. Potentially even as early as Week 14 against the Miami Dolphins.
An unfortunate rash of injuries have recently depleted the depth chart of the Red and Gold. But in the NFL, one man's misfortune brings opportunity for another to step in and shine.
Let's look at five reasons the top two rookies from the 49ers' 2012 draft class should finally be able to soak up some NFL action over the final quarter of the regular season.
Injuries at Wide Receiver
As if losing wide receiver and slot specialist Kyle Williams for the season due to a torn ACL in Week 12 wasn't enough, Mario Manningham is banged up again.
CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco reported that Manningham and cornerback Tarell Brown did not practice Wednesday due to injuries that could keep them out of Sunday's action against Miami.
Manningham aggravated a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the 49ers' Week 7 win over Seattle. If he can't suit up Sunday when SF hosts Miami, one would have to imagine A.J. Jenkins will be pressed into duty.
The Niners would still have Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss as their No. 1 and No. 2 options, respectively. But the absence of Manningham would bump Jenkins into the No. 3 spot unless the coaching staff opted to go with Ted Ginn Jr. as the third receiver.
Ginn, the team's main return man, has experience catching passes but without much success. I feel as if the majority of the 49ers Faithful would prefer to see what the rookie can do instead.
Injuries in the Backfield
With Kendall Hunter lost for the season, running back and free-agent signing Brandon Jacobs got his first dose of regular season action as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
Jacobs received four carries in the overtime loss to St. Louis, though he totaled just six yards. Jim Harbaugh opted to ride All-Pro RB Frank Gore to the tune of a season-high 23 rushes in the game.
Gore's first game of the year without Hunter backing him up resulted in a season-low 2.5 yards per carry. The offensive line undoubtedly experienced an unusual off day, but there's no denying the fact that Hunter's absence leaves the 49ers with a one-dimensional backfield.
Gore has elite vision and can still get to the sidelines if need be, but it's not really his style. Jacobs, at 6'4", 264 pounds, is a power back and nothing more. Anthony Dixon, a special teams' ace and emergency running back, is solely a north and south-type runner himself.
James, however, is quite the contrary. That's not to say the 49ers' second-round pick doesn't pack a punch, but the 5'9", 195-pound speedster would give the 49ers a running back similar to Hunter to add to the stable. Only James is even more explosive.
Gore suffered a minor wrist injury in Week 13 and is always a risk to get nicked up due to his aggressive running style. In saying that, I would be shocked if the 49ers do not at least have James dress for Sunday's game at Candlestick Park.
Prep for the Postseason
By no means should the 49ers be looking to encounter a situation similar to what they faced during last year's postseason run.
That is of course why Trent Baalke and co. went after skill players with the team's first two picks.
The 49ers were so thin at receiver in 2011, Alex Smith was sending passes in Brett Swain's direction (eight career receptions) in the NFC Championship game. And we all know how that turned out.
San Fran drafted these offensive weapons to prevent such an event from reoccurring, but I can't imagine Harbaugh would be comfortable turning them loose in the postseason without any NFL regular-season game action under their belts.
As is the case with nearly every NFL team, the 49ers' depth is wearing thin. It's crucial that these players begin to develop some confidence now so they are mentally prepared to step up down the road.
Considering the 49ers, at 8-3-1, only hold a one-and-a-half-game lead over the Seahawks in the NFC West, throwing untested rookies into the mix during such a crucial point of the season could be perceived as quite the gamble.
Sure, but much less of a risk than getting them acquainted during the playoffs, right?
Understanding of the Offense
This Sunday, we will be exactly three months deep into the 2012 season. But just because Jenkins and James haven't been playing all this time doesn't mean they haven't been learning.
In reality, there may not be a better environment for a rookie to be groomed. This isn't an NFL franchise desperate for new faces to uplift the fanbase and transition the team into a new era.
Considering it's Week 14 and the 49ers' first two draft picks have yet to make their NFL debuts, that much is obvious.
The point is, there is absolutely no pressure on these youngsters to go out and put the team on their respective backs. The Niners don't need them, at this point, to play an every-down role in the offense.
By now, Jenkins and James should have learned enough of the X's and O's to step on the field in a limited role and display confidence in executing their assignments. Harbaugh knows the youngsters have been working their tails off. He acknowledged as much earlier this week and mentioned (per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee) that both players could soon be integrated into the game plan.
We'll never know exactly what Jimbo has up his sleeve until we see him unleash it on the field. But if you're anything like me, you've got a feeling in your gut that between the recent stretch of injuries and Jenkins' and James' own preparedness, we're about to see them in action in the very near future.
Depth in the Return Game
At the very least, the 49ers could use the rookie duo for depth in the return game.
Not because having an unproven commodity fielding kicks is a preference, of course. But with Williams out for the season, SF loses their main insurance plan in the event that Ginn goes down with injury.
According to the NFL depth chart experts at Ourlads.com, James is now the backup to Ginn in the return game. Both James and Jenkins have experience fielding kicks and punts from their collegiate days.
Jenkins was on the active roster against St. Louis for the first time since the season opener, but James hasn't dressed once in 2012.
Considering that, outside of Ginn, James and Jenkins are the most experienced returners the 49ers have, now sounds like a good time to get them both active and prepared for duty.
With Colin Kaepernick under center, SF should have even more incentive to get James out on the field. The Oregon product is familiar with the read-option from his days with the Ducks, something he and the dual-threat QB have in common.
After last week's play-calling debacles, now may not be the best time to get too creative, but even a small sample of the speedy RB could prove enough to send an opposing defense into a panic.