Think of the first time you drove to a place that you are now familiar driving to. Do you remember how you couldn’t really go as fast as you wanted because you weren’t sure exactly where you were going? I am sure that it took less time to get there as you became familiar with the drive. This is the same exact situation that A.J. Jenkins went through during his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers.
Many people don’t realize that Jenkins got off to a slow start at the University of Illinois. Take a look at his stats:
2008 FR 11 REC 287 YDS 26.1 AVG 3 TDs
2009 SO 10 REC 123 YDS 12.3 AVG 1 TD
2010 JR 56 REC 746 YDS 13.3 AVG 7 TDs
2011 SR 90 REC 1276 YDS 14.2 AVG 8 TDs
He had a breakout season in 2011 as he was one of the most productive wide receivers in college football. A lot of his catches were on mid range routes. He showed himself to be able to generate yards after the catch also. Jenkins was a slippery receiver in college. Often times he caught the ball and got up field immediately to gain extra yards. He also was a very smooth route runner.
The 49ers’ selection of Quinton Patton has sparked many people that I have spoken with to feel that the 49ers should give up on Jenkins. That is when I go back to the analogy in the opening of this article. Jenkins is a fast receiver. He played the game fast in college. Becoming a pro receiver is a major transition. It is not something that many players excel at doing right away.
In the NFL there is more to playing receiver than just running routes and catching the football. Pro football becomes a more mental game. Receivers need to first recognize coverages when they get to the line of scrimmage. Then once the ball is snapped they have to read what the defense is doing. A lot of times defenses will disguise presnap coverage in order to fool the quarterback and receiver. Once the play starts the receiver is required to make route conversions that are dictated by how the defense is playing.
Asante Samuel is a master at fooling quarterbacks into thinking he is playing man when he is in fact playing zone. He will come up to the line like as if he is going to press the receiver which is a clear indicator of man coverage. At the snap, he will bail and run with the receiver for a bit then release to his zone, thus fooling the quarterback into making a throw that becomes an easy interception.
In addition to the coverage and route conversion comes the need to know the down/distance to go for the first down. Imagine how difficult it is to process all of this on the fly! Initially the cerebral part of the game will slow a lot of rookie players down. This was not any different for A.J.
Trent Baalke has proven himself to be a razor sharp evaluator of talent. He announced that there was a particular player that he had his sights set on prior to the draft. Most people where surprised when the card was handed in for pick #30 in the first round and A.J. Jenkins was the name that was announced. Baalke saw a balanced athlete with deceptive speed with large, soft hands.
The 2012 season should be chalked up as a learning experience for Jenkins. He did get some reps during the season but was only targeted once. He didn’t register any receptions, however he gained valuable experience. He showed some promise in the last game of the preseason by making four catches for 59 yards. One of his four catches was a twelve yard touchdown from Colin Kaepernick. The touchdown was the result of Kaepernick scrambling in the pocket, Jenkins breaking off of his route to get open in the back of the end zone and making a very nice catch.
Jenkins has worked with Kaepernick and fellow receiver Ricardo Lockette in Atlanta for most of the off season so far. The chemistry that can be developed in those workouts is invaluable. Jenkins will get to start out the season higher on the depth chart and more familiar with the offense. Expect the speed that Jenkins showed at Illinois to surface now that he has a year under his belt. The 49ers will give him opportunity to earn playing time during the preseason.