San Francisco 49ers: Progress Reports for the 7 Rookie Draft Picks so Far
Through 10 training camp practices, every rookie on the San Francisco 49ers has effectively made their case for playing time in the first preseason game on Friday.
Things can certainly change in the next two days, but their playing status should be firmly set after this many practices.
So, exactly how have they performed through these latest offseason camps? What would the progress reports for every rookie look like up to this point?
The 49ers currently have 23 rookies on their roster, with 16 qualifying as undrafted free agents. Only fifth-round pick Darius Fleming (Physically-Unable-to-Perform) and UDFA Jewel Hampton (Non-Football Injury) are inactive.
Let’s examine the progress of these first-year players in a series of slides that will highlight the seven 2012 draft selections.
Note: Tomorrow I will provide progress reports for the remaining undrafted 49er rookies by position.
A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois (No. 30 Overall)
Jenkins has garnered much publicity since showing up admittedly out of shape during the rookie minicamps in May (per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com via ProFootballTalk).
Numerous writers, pundits, and outside observers did not appreciate this showing at the outset of his NFL career.
Yet, while being a fair evaluation in the short term, it by no means reflects the type of conditioning the first-rounder has showcased since those initial camps.
Many rookies aren’t at the top of their game at the start of offseason workouts. This is especially true of high-round picks like Jenkins who go through the draft process that often takes them away from the football field.
This removal from a proper training regimen caused Jenkins to be slightly overwhelmed by the speed of 49ers’ practices. Even GM Trent Baalke acknowledged that Jenkins needed to bulk up to maintain himself at the NFL level (per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee).
However, head coach Jim Harbaugh recently—and adamantly—noted that his receiver’s conditioning is now fully up to par and is pleased with his development.
Also, as Barrows astutely points out, the 49ers front office did not necessarily intend on Jenkins making a significant impact in his first year. Wide receiver was already a solidified position with Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams in the fold.
Maiocco added that Jenkins has to earn a spot within that top five as well. I agree.
Fast forwarding to the 49ers training camp that began on July 27, Jenkins had a rather uneventful first day. He did not tally a reception in the 11-on-11 drills.
Things changed for the better on day two Jenkins made three impressive catches and ran fluid routes with Crabtree out with a right calf injury.
He then handled physical press coverage against Perrish Cox fairly well during the next practice. Many draft analysts criticized Jenkins for not possessing the requisite physicality to defeat one-on-ones. He performed decently during his first test in camp.
To the chagrin of the coaching staff, Jenkins failed to catch passes that the defense subsequently intercepted in red-zone drills during the next two practices. His performance through the first six days of camp had thus been inconsistent at best.
Jenkins' receiving skills improved in the seventh practice. On the other hand, he muffed three punts on simulated punt-return drills. It shouldn’t be entirely problematic considering he never returned punts at Illinois. He’ll remain behind Ginn, Williams, and LaMichael James on the depth chart in that capacity for now.
Finally, as Nate Stuhlbarg of CSNBayArea.com reported, Jenkins turned in his most impressive performance yesterday. He hauled in a 25-yarder high above multiple defenders on the first-team defense. Teammate Michael Crabtree made a point to acknowledge the rookie’s constant improvement.
Overall, Jenkins has been entirely inconsistent during training camp. One could even say the bad outweighs the good.
Then again, his development is ongoing and he does not need to contribute significantly in year one with the accomplished receivers ahead of him.
Jenkins will grow in time behind his tireless work ethic, positive attitude and an abundance of veteran leadership pushing him towards his potential. Still, his performance has not consistently impressed up to this point.
LaMichael James, RB, Oregon (No. 61 Overall)
The former standout at Oregon looks to secure a spot on the pecking order of Niner running backs.
James will compete with Brandon Jacobs for playing time behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. He is the type of dynamic home run threat that will see action in sub-packages, third downs, and possibly on special teams.
James unfortunately missed the majority of offseason workouts due to a late graduation date. Rookies could not attend these camps until fully graduated, according to NFL rules. The one exception was the rookie minicamp.
Throughout training camp practices, LMJ looked consistently good in punt-return simulations. He even put in extra time with special teams coach Brad Seely.
He then received more action on offense in the later goings. Most notable was his solid blitz pickup of Larry Grant on an August 2nd practice and a later one against Aldon Smith, the OLB who made a living blowing up blockers in 2012. With starting RB Frank Gore being so adept in pass protection, James (and his 5’8’’, 194-pound stature) needs to prove he can hold up against blitzing defenders.
As a whole, James looked good in limited playing time, reporting healthy for all but one practice. He proved himself in both pass-protection and punt-return drills. He also showed off his great vision and speed when given the chance.
Now it’s up to James to learn the 49ers’ complex playbook and adjust to huddles used in a pro-style system. It is not something he ran in Oregon’s spread offense, but both James and offensive coordinator Greg Roman believes he can make the transition.
Roman is fully aware of his vision, quickness and underrated ability to run between the tackles.
The 49ers currently list James as the No. 3 return man on both kickoffs and punts according to its first official training camp depth chart. That depth chart listing, as well as his No. 4 position as a running back, are subject to change as preseason games get underway.
Joe Looney, G, Wake Forest (No. 117 Overall)
Looney sustained a Lisfranc injury to his foot during a Senior Bowl practice. He did not participate in 49ers' offseason workouts until Friday August 3rd of training camp.
The Wake Forest product performed well in his debut after a lengthy delay to on-field action. He held his own as a second-team right guard against defensive lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie, a fellow rookie.
Looney looked even better in the following practice. He showed off his run-blocking prowess when he paved the way for a Kendall Hunter score at the goal line.
The burly lineman made a fluid transition to the practice field after missing substantial time. He’ll fill in as second backup at both guard positions as the offseason progresses through the exhibition matchups.
Grade: B+ (albeit in limited action)
Darius Fleming, OLB, Notre Dame (No. 165 Overall)
Fleming suffered a torn ACL in mid-May and will not play in his rookie season.
His loss depletes San Francisco’s depth at outside linebacker. He remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
Trenton Robinson, S, Michigan State (No. 180 Overall)
The 49ers' sixth-rounder is another draft pick seeing backup playing time at the team’s camp. He currently serves as the No. 4 safety behind Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner and C.J. Spillman.
Robinson provides solid depth at the position. He’s listed as strong safety, but can operate in coverage as well as special teams. He has shown that for the most part in training camp, despite getting burned by Moss last Thursday.
To be fair, Moss has been known to take rookie defensive backs to school in the past.
Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group (via CSNBayArea.com) also noted the rookie’s composure on the practice field. Robinson did not retaliate when rookie wideout Brian Tyms taunted him during a special-teams workout.
(Quite the refreshing development considering all of the rampant fighting at the Jets’ training camp this year.)
Another noteworthy play was when Robinson successfully contained fellow rookie LaMichael James on an outside run. It showcased his ability as a run-defending strong safety.
Robinson has been a strong overall player thus far in training camp. His selection as only one of two 49er rookies for second string on the first official depth chart (no rookie earned a starting nod) reveals the coaching staff’s confidence in him moving forward.
He’ll rise up the ranks with improved play in coverage, and will maintain his good standing with valuable special teams contributions.
Jason Slowey, C/G, Western Oregon (No. 199 Overall)
Injuries have derailed Slowey’s progress for the majority of training camp. He missed his third full practice on Tuesday and has not participated at full capacity thus far.
He is an intelligent, mauling lineman that looks to have a future with the 49ers. As for now, he seems destined for the practice squad with Daniel Kilgore firmly ahead of him on the depth chart.
Cam Johnson, DE/OLB, Virginia (No. 237 Overall)
Johnson is a supremely talented, but raw defensive end/outside linebacker product. He’ll man the latter of those positions in San Francisco’s 3-4 defense.
This 49er rookie is yet another player on the squad who suffered through an injury (knee) throughout camp.
He did, however, produce a couple shining moments.
During an agility drill for linebackers put on by defensive quality control coach Peter Hansen, Johnson displayed the best hands on the third go-around. He was one of only a few backers all practice not to drop Hansen’s quick-fire passes as he and his teammates shuffled over a series of bags. Even All-Pros Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman failed on separate occasions.
Johnson’s other memorable practice related more to the actual game of football. The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows reported Johnson adeptly setting the edge against the run and making a tackle at the line of scrimmage in an early-August practice.
He’s in a fierce battle with Kourtnei Brown and Eric Bakhtiari for the fourth OLB slot. Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Parys Haralson remain firmly entrenched at the top of the depth chart.
Johnson must reproduce performances such as the one mentioned above if he is to secure a starting roster spot and avoid the practice squad. His success as an edge rusher is crucial as well.
He’ll be right in the mix until coaches make final roster cuts.
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