When Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke took over in San Francisco, the organization was in desperate need of big-play ability at the wide receiver position. In 2010, former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary fielded Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn and Dominique Zeigler on a weekly basis.
This four-man rotation led to one of the NFL’s worst passing attacks. At the end of the 2010 NFL season, the Niners were at the bottom of the league in terms of completion percentage, first downs through the air and quarterback rating.
Not a single wide receiver on the roster that year had more than 55 catches and 741 yards receiving. Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis led the 49ers in every single receiving category including receptions, yards and touchdowns.
The subpar play didn’t sit well with Harbaugh and Baalke. So they made it a point during the 2011 offseason to add new players to the mix while coaching up the group of wideouts who had held roster spots previously.
Unfortunately, San Francisco’s lone big-name free agent signing at wide receiver fizzled out before the end of the 2011 season. Braylon Edwards only appeared in nine games for the 49ers. Aside from the fact that Edwards didn’t score a single touchdown, he only caught 15-of-32 targets for 181 yards.
Even though Davis led the team in receiving touchdowns for the second-straight season, Crabtree showed significant progress by stepping up and amassing more receptions and yards than No. 85.
As you can imagine, Harbaugh was still yearning for more production out of his wide receiving corp. Instead of signing often-injured playmakers like Edwards, the organization went a different route. They made it a point to sign players who were productive on an annual basis.
This notion led to the signings of five-time All-Pro wide receiver Randy Moss and Super Bowl champion wide receiver Mario Manningham. Yet, those two free-agent acquisitions were only the beginning. Baalke and the 49ers’ front office had one more trick up their sleeve on draft day.
With the 30th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, San Francisco selected University of Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Coming out of college, Jenkins was viewed as an ultra-productive receiver who showed good foot speed at the NFL combine.
He also showed enough flexibility at the collegiate level to be considered a threat in the slot and on the outside.
His lofty draft status didn’t immediately translate into playing time, as he was only active for three regular-season games in 2012.
With an already stacked roster on the offensive side of the ball, his limited number of snaps throughout the 2012 season came as no surprise. Crabtree, Moss, Manningham, Ginn and Kyle Williams all logged more snaps than the 23-year-old rookie wideout.
In fact, there were only four offensive players total who recorded fewer snaps than Jenkins. Two of them were reserve running backs, one was a player who primarily played defense and the other was a player who had been promoted from the team’s practice squad.
Aside from having a stacked roster, some of you may be wondering what other things factored into the scarce playing time. For one, San Francisco acknowledged that Jenkins was out of shape at last May’s rookie minicamp (h/t Matt Maiocco on Twitter).
Secondly, he wasn’t motivated to make a change. Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice offered to personally help Jenkins get in shape after his less than impressive showing at minicamp. The rookie declined (per Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat).
Jenkins’ poor decisions and showings forced Coach Harbaugh to publicly defend him before training camp had even started. Here’s what Harbaugh told 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.
Whether Harbaugh really felt that way or not is beside the point; San Francisco’s head coach was simply protecting one of his players. Jenkins wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last player he publicly defends.
Will there be room for Jenkins on the 49ers’ 53-man roster when the light bulb finally goes off? After a disappointing rookie campaign on and off the field, the immediate answer appears to be no.
Let’s not forget that San Francisco’s front office didn’t do Jenkins any favors in the offseason. They traded away a sixth-round pick for Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin and they drafted Louisiana Tech wide receiver Quinton Patton.
Moreover, Coach Harbaugh is “fired up” about wideout Ricardo Lockette (via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area). The two offseason moves, coupled with the high-level of praise for Lockette, don’t exactly bode well for the former first-round pick.
Undoubtedly, Jenkins has an uphill battle on his hands.
After training camp concluded in 2012, the 49ers kept six wide receivers on their 53-man roster. If that same sentiment rings true in 2013, Jenkins will be fighting for one of the final roster spots at his position.
As it sits right now, Crabtree, Boldin and Manningham are all ahead of Jenkins on the depth chart. He will be battling Williams, Patton and Lockette for that sixth and final roster spot at wide receiver. Chad Hall, Marlon Moore, Chuck Jacobs and Joe Hastings all appear to be long shots at best.
With that being said, Jenkins appears to be taking his 2013 offseason more seriously than his 2012 offseason.
According to Eric Branch of sfgate.com, Jenkins spent time training with quarterback Colin Kaepernick in February.
Building a rapport with San Francisco’s signal caller will be his only saving grace during training camp. If he and Kaepernick show off a solid one-two punch, his roster spot will be all but guaranteed come September.
After all, most head coaches and general managers won’t give up on a Day 1 pick after one year. However, Harbaugh and Baalke drafted Jenkins. These two men rarely follow the status quo amongst league circles.
Mr. Jenkins has officially been put on notice; his time is now ticking away.