Digging into the A.J. Jenkins Quandary in San Francisco

Dylan DeSimoneCorrespondent IMay 7, 2013

Digging into the A.J. Jenkins Quandary in San Francisco

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    Entering his second season as a pro, A.J. Jenkins is quickly finding out nothing is given in the NFL.

    The San Francisco 49ers’ first-rounder from a year ago is going to be completely surrounded by competition in Santa Clara this summer.

    Admittedly, Jenkins’ current standing with the team would have been less of a hot topic had the 49ers not brought in two more high-profile receivers.

    Frankly, the additions of Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton will bolster a receiving corps that already had several capable contributors. Even down to 2013 free agent signee, Ricardo Lockette, there will be skilled receivers battling for a role (via CSN Bay Area).

    As a first-rounder already fighting to secure an active slot on game day, this was supposed to be the year that Jenkins got on the field.

    However, despite the investment of a high pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the 49ers are not in the business of giving away starting jobs. By continuing to bring in competition, they have proven that it will be an earned position.

    Heading into the 2013-14 NFL year, it seems fitting to check up on the 49ers top pick from 2012. In the following piece, we’ll take a look at how long Jenkins might have, where he came from and what he’s up against. 

A.J. Jenkins vs. Quinton Patton

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    Given the high-profile nature of the wide receiver position and the media’s overwhelming adoration for gossip, it would be wise to brace for this storyline in training camp this year.

    While it is not entirely fair to label it as such or tie these two together like that, there are reasons they will share headlines this summer. It is not as farfetched a story as it may seem.

    Since A.J. Jenkins is further down the depth chart (No. 5), it puts him in closest proximity to the incoming Patton. For the LA Tech rookie to climb the ladder, the first person he has to surpass is the 2012 first-rounder.

    Outside of the two uncontested starters, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams have seniority over Jenkins. The fact that Jenkins and Patton were two name picks at wide receiver in back-to-back drafts also narrows down the competition.

    As it stands, both Jenkins and Patton are currently at the same junction.

    Neither player has a single NFL catch to their name. Moreover, both are striving for field time on a roster laden with accomplished veterans. Early into their pro careers, Jenkins and Patton are essentially blank canvases. 

    The only stat-based analysis to be had on these two players stems from their days in the NCAA. Since Patton did not join LA Tech till his third year  while Jenkins played all four, the following chart lists cumulative totals from their junior and senior campaigns.

    It is the fairest and most concise way to juxtapose their output. 

    College Production vs. College Production
    Name G/P Rec. Yds. TD YPC
    Jenkins 26 146 2,022 15 13.8
    Patton 25 183 2,594 24 14.1

    The takeaway from this is that during a two-year span, Patton played one less game and had roughly a quarter more production.

    While there are conferences to take into account—Big Ten versus WAC—it does not make or break the argument. The competition was not terribly lopsided, favoring one player over the year because which school they played for in college.

    Jenkins did see more nationally ranked teams than Patton but the results were not always positive.

    Jenkins (2010-2011): No. 2 Ohio State (L), No. 11 Michigan State (L), No. 25 Northwestern (W), No. 22 Arizona State (W), No. 19 Penn State (L), No. 22 Michigan (L), No. 15 Wisconsin (L)

    Patton (2011-2012): No. 18 (FCS) Central Arkansas (W), No. 15 TCU (L), No. 22 Texas A&M (L)

    Additionally, what does not show up here is that Patton almost single-handedly upset the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies. Drawn into a shootout, Patton saw career highs across the board, reeling in 21 balls for 233 yards and four touchdowns.

    With Patton, the Bulldogs also pulled off wins against teams like Idaho, Ole Miss, Fresno State, Nevada, Houston, Illinois and Virginia.

    In that two-year stretch for both players, Jenkins had 11 games with 50 yards or less, while Patton only dropped below that mark six times. This showed a greater median for Patton who performed at a superior level on a more consistent basis.

    Nevertheless, heading into their respective drafts, both Jenkins and Patton had second-round grades (per NFL Draft Scout).

    During the pre-draft process, Jenkins (6’0”, 190 lbs.) clocked a 4.37, while Patton (6’0”, 204 lbs.) put down a 4.48. The Illini receiver is a little lighter, but at least converts that lack of size into top-flight speed.

    However, in order to be effective in the NFL, Jenkins will need to add weight. The physical demands of the wide receiver position—from releasing at the line of scrimmage to after the catch—dictates a player have strength and a solid build.

    If, and when, Jenkins adds weight, will it be at the cost of his speed? 

A Look at Recent Draft Misfires

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    Former NFL wide receiver Rashaun Woods is one of the more famed busts in team history.

    In Round 1 of the 2004 NFL draft, the 49ers spent the No. 31 overall selection on the All-American from Oklahoma State. Coming into the league, Woods was a top-five ranked player at his position (h/t NFL Draft Scout).

    Prior to the draft, there was the slight expectation that Woods might be a Niner. Given their draft slot at the end of Round 1, Woods’ prospective ranking and the team's need, it made a ton of sense at the time.

    The 49ers were exiting an era where they were frantically in need of a successor to departed All-Pro wide out Terrell Owens. In the end, this largely influenced their decision to pull the trigger on the former Cowboys receiver.

    While he might not have been the top player on the board, it was a No. 1 need at the time. 

    Woods went on to play 14 games for San Francisco, finishing with seven catches for 160 yards and a single touchdown. All seven of his catches came in a span of four contests—each one a loss by the 49ers where there was a collective point differential of minus-90.

    After tearing two ligaments in this thumb prior to Week 1, Woods ended up spending the 2005 season on injured reserve. By April 2006, a new regime headed by Mike Nolan had seen enough of Woods and he was then shipped to San Diego for cornerback Sammy Davis (h/t ESPN):

    Jenkins is 4th WR drafted in 1st rd by 49ers since 1985: Michael Crabtree (2009), Rashaun Woods (2004), J.J. Stokes (1995)

    — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 27, 2012

    An even more recent example occurred during the 2008-2010 period. 

    The 49ers used the No. 29 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft on defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer (North Carolina). In more similar fashion to the A.J. Jenkins pick, Balmer was a surprise at the end of the first, taken perhaps a round early.

    Again, the logic was that if the 49ers really wanted him, they had to take him there.

    In 27 games played, Balmer (6’5”, 317 lbs.) collected a mere 11 tackles. The Niners gambled on his conversion from defensive tackle to a 3-4 end, but Balmer simply didn’t take to it.   

    After the experiment was deemed a failure, the former first-rounder was traded within the division to the Seattle Seahawks in August 2010. The 49ers would only ask for future sixth-round choice in return (h/t Mike Sando of ESPN).

    These are two very similar decisions made by the 49ers organization under two different regimes. As two late first-rounders, Woods and Balmer were each allotted two seasons to show they deserved to be there, and no more.   

    If history is any indication, this season will be the deciding factor for Jenkins. 

The Media Downpour

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    One of the vexing distractions for any incoming first-rounder is having so much attention devoted to their progress, or lack thereof.

    Unfortunately, that scrutiny really begins the moment they are drafted and does not cease until that player grows into himself and the finished product is evident.

    All players selected on day one are subject to being put under the microscope and to different degrees depending on their position and draft slot. 

    For this reason, and more, the archetype of a first-round pick can be a difficult standard to live up to.   

    Take a look at Ryan Leaf or Vince Young and you’ll see players that have had epic collapses under intense levels of media pressure (h/t Deadspin). The majority of Mark Sanchez’s career has been built around a snowballing media circus and he continues to disappoint. 

    While the above-mentioned are all quarterbacks, they each succumbed to first-round expectations extrapolated by media and fan pressure. However, if you’re looking for direct wide receiver comparisons, a former first-rounder like Kenny Britt is a good example.

    Britt is a high-ceiling player that Tennessee has been waiting on to emerge as a franchise player, yet his mind and energy are often somewhere else. This has led to off-the-field issues, injuries and ultimately to a failure to live up to expectations.   

    The bottom line is, this year, the spotlight on A.J. Jenkins is going to intensify. And the questions become:

    How does Jenkins respond?

    What are we going to see from him this year that is different from 2012?

    Is he getting better or getting worse?

    While there is nothing to suggest Jenkins’ personal stability is hanging in the balance, there is concern for his on-field response. If Jenkins can perform on game day, the media’s lingering questions will start to disappear. 

    Mind you, this is a momentous first hump to get over, especially when heading into his second year, Jenkins has yet to make his first regular season catch as a pro. 

    If he puts forward results, showing to the rest of the world what the 49ers saw in him, Jenkins can silence the doubters.

    After that, anything that may have impeded his growth will be eradicated and he can have a clear road to continue his progress. 

A.J. Jenkins: Then and Now

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    As stated previously, the attention on A.J. Jenkins promptly began when he was drafted.

    With receivers Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina), Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech), Rueben Randle (LSU) and Brian Quick (Appalachian St.) all on the board at the time of his selection, the consensus was that the draft card San Francisco handed in came out of left field. 

    During the pre-draft process, Jenkins was unanimously ranked behind these players, but each team has its own unique draft criteria. Despite San Francisco’s feelings for the wideout, Jenkins was labeled a reach in 2012.

    At that moment, people wanted to know more about the rookie and "The Jenkins Watch" was on.

    When he arrived in Santa Clara for minicamp in May, the 49ers saw that Jenkins was out of shape (h/t Matt Maiocco on Twitter). He was apparently winded and received flack for not finishing the eight-figure drills strong, losing to UDFA receiver Chris Owusu.

    After being tagged as a questionable pick in the draft, this was not a convincing first impression. This story was really just the beginning of a string of negative write-ups from the local Bay Area and national media.

    The next ding against him came in the form of a missed opportunity when Jenkins said of Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice's run-the-hill offer (Tim Kawakami @timkawakami) May 11, 2012), "Yeah, I need to get in shape. So I'm going to do it. ... Something I'm looking forward to."

    As a welcome to San Francisco, Rice invited the rookie to work out with him. Rice wanted to take Jenkins up the reknowned hill, which No. 80 had used as part of his conditioning program. 

    Although he showed interest, Jenkins squandered the chance to get some one-on-one time with the NFL’s all-time leading receiver (via Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat).

    By the time training camp had rolled around, Jim Harbaugh had already heard enough negative feedback about his first-round pick. In larger-than-life fashion, the 49ers coach passionately defended Jenkins in front of the press (h/t Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports):

    A.J Jenkins was an outstanding football player when he got here. His progress has been very, very good, and exceeded expectations.

    For those—the scribes, pundits, so-called experts—who have gone so far as to say that he's going to be a bust, should just stop. I recommend that because they're making themselves look more clueless than they already did.

    I'll go on record: A.J. is going to be an outstanding football player. So far in camp and what he's done in the offseason has led us to believe nothing but he'll be an outstanding football player in the National Football League. 

    Jenkins would enter the season buried on the depth chart, red-shirting in his first year with the team. When the 49ers incurred injury at the position, losing Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham, the rookie failed to step up.  

    Even when it came down to the Super Bowl where veteran receiver Randy Moss was a non-factor, Jenkins’ number was not called.

    According to Pro Football Talk, Jenkins vowed to return “a totally different player” in his sophomore season. This offseason, he immediately got to work with quarterback Colin Kaepernick, training down with him in Atlanta.

    In this recent video released by TV49, Jenkins is anxiously nesting next to Kyle Williams, looking like an eager beaver.

    In terms of body language, he appears more driven than the carefree version of himself that arrived in April of 2012. 

Conclusion

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    The verdict is still out on young A.J. Jenkins, but I don’t believe he is a bust.

    A bust is a player that simply can’t play in this league.

    There is not nearly enough evidence to prove what Jenkins is one way or another. Given how proficient the 49ers have been in the draft, it is difficult to believe they would miss so badly.

    Having red-shirted him as a rookie, the 49ers made the first-round investment, and might not have necessarily been looking for immediate results. Like a stock, San Francisco is assuming his yield will be better in the long-term than the short.

    This is fitting for Jenkins, who was a late-bloomer, but progressed during his time with the Fighting Illini. With the jump from the NCAA to the NFL, it appears as if Jenkins is going through similar growing pains all over again.

    While it’s a tired example, similar questions surrounded Jerry Rice early in his career. Rice was the third receiver taken in the first-round in 1985, hailing from tiny Mississippi Valley State.

    On top of the small-school knock, scouts thought Rice was slow, posting a 4.71 40-time during the pre-draft process.

    In their first years, Jenkins’ issue had been getting on the field, whereas Rice had difficulty hanging onto the football. A rookie campaign is much a trial-and-error period where newcomers can learn by doing.

    Entering his sophomore season, Jenkins will have more time to build his game and prove to others the kind of player he can be. The urgency on his behalf has been apparent already this offseason, as he got to work with Colin Kaepernick even before Michael Crabtree did.

    If his upside translates to the NFL and he can harness that 4.3 speed into big-play ability downfield, the 49ers may have something. The fear is that he falls short of his first-round expectations, becoming nothing more than a dependable slot receiver.

    As mentioned, this is the second season of a seemingly critical two-year window for Jenkins, even as a first-round pick.  

    The 49ers will be anticipating Jenkins’ assertion, but they are by no means putting their Super Bowl plans on hold while they wait for his development. The additions of Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton are proof of that.

    Jenkins will be in direct contention with the 2013 rookie, working to fend off Patton for playing time. Patton was the central figure in LA Tech’s Air Raid attack, which gives him a similar background as key 49ers Michael Crabtree and Kendall Hunter.

    In the college ranks, Crabtree and Hunter thrived under NCAA coach Dana Holgorsen, operating within the Air Raid system. They have since played pivotal roles in San Francisco's evolving West Coast offense. 

    Since Patton clearly fits what San Francisco is building, he will provide an exceptional challenge for Jenkins in a make-or-break season. This way, the 49ers optimize their potential results at receiver, bringing high level competition into training camp. 

    However, the ideal situation is if San Francisco has two future stars receivers in Jenkins and Patton.

     

    Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.

     To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80