Posted May 08, 2012

Boom or Bust: Will AJ Jenkins prove the critics wrong?

Boom or Bust, San Francisco 49ers

A.J. Jenkins has impressive speed, but his physicality leaves a lot to be desired. (ZUMApress.com)

It might have been the most contentious pick of the first round: San Francisco, at No. 30 overall, nabbing wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, a player many expected to be available for a good chunk of Day 2.

Was it a reach? It sure felt like one, though we’ve heard since the draft that at least a couple other teams had very high grades on the lanky 6-foot-1 receiver. One look at his numbers at Illinois indicates why — Jenkins made 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns in his senior season, despite pretty mediocre quarterback play.

San Francisco suddenly finds itself overloaded with receivers, as Jenkins will join new acquisitions Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, along with incumbents Michael Crabtree and Ted Ginn.

So, what will Jenkins’ role be?

He may find himself asked to carve out a niche like the one Baltimore’s Torrey Smith did in his rookie season. The two receivers carry similar size (Smith is 6-1, 205; Jenkins 6-1, 190), and both thrive while stretching the field. Smith averaged 16.8 yards per catch (50 for 841 yards) in 2011.

Jenkins’ athleticism is something that cannot be taught. He ran a 4.41 40 at the combine and posted a 38 1/2-inch vertical leap. Part of why he put up such great numbers at Illinois is that opposing defenses often struggled to figure out how to defend him.

Let’s take a look at a 33-yard TD reception Jenkins had against Northwestern to emphasize that point.

Jenkins has man coverage on him on the near sideline, with the cornerback initially giving him about eight or nine yards in cushion, then walking up closer to the line just before the snap.

That becomes a problem for Northwestern’s defender because by the time he tries to jam Jenkins, the speedy receiver already has his shoulders turned around the coverage. Jenkins then flies up the sideline and makes an easy touchdown grab with his defender trailing him by several yards.

You can play Jenkins physically (we’ll get to that in a minute), but his quickness requires decisive defense against him. A half-hearted jam attempt won’t work, and closing on him once he’s broken free is nearly impossible.

The Northwestern game was the biggest of Jenkins’ career — and some credit goes to the Wildcats’ awful pass defense for that — as he finished with 268 yards on 12 catches.

Here’s another big gain, where Northwestern tried a different approach to covering Jenkins. On the play below the Wildcats again went to a man look, but this time sagged way off Jenkins to prevent him from getting long. Instead, he runs a double move, then winds up wide open breaking to the sideline for about a 30-yard gain.

Route-running is one area of Jenkins’ game that will need some time to develop, especially matched up with NFL corners, but given time and space, he will get where he needs to go.

The defenses that do attack Jenkins, though, may find some success. While he’ll no doubt bulk up once joining the 49ers, Jenkins’ wiry frame isn’t built for blowing through defenders, so when a cornerback plays him aggressively, he can run into trouble.

Michigan’s J.T. Floyd showed that fact off last season — Jenkins caught eight passes for 103 yards in a loss to the Wolverines, but he struggled to find that game-changing strike.

On this play Floyd gives Jenkins a cushion similar to the one Northwestern employed earlier (about 8-9 yards). Jenkins runs a stop-and-go, stutter-stepping at about the 40, then trying to explode past Floyd.

There’s some mutual contact about 10 yards from the line of scrimmage (if you want to argue for an illegal contact penalty, go for it, but there was no flag on the play). After the two players bump, Floyd continues downfield to try to make a play on the ball, which fell incomplete at about the Michigan 35.

Jenkins … stops completely.

That’s just one of the areas of Jenkins game he’ll have to refine, and he’ll definitely run into more physical corners playing man-to-man defense in the NFL than he did in college.

The breakdown of the rest of Jenkins’ game depends on what you saw on tape. San Francisco obviously focused on the high potential of a player who produced in college, has terrific speed and leaping ability, and will work hard throughout his rookie season. Others noticed Jenkins’ occasional hesitancy to use his body, some dropped passes, and that average route-running ability.

He’s definitely not a finished product. The question facing the 49ers is how long it will take Jenkins to make those strides he needs to make to become a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver in the NFL.

Best-case scenario: Jenkins becomes an immediate deep threat for San Francisco, either complementing Moss’ ability in that regard or completely supplanting him on the depth chart. His leaping ability makes him a red-zone threat, and the 49ers are able to get him the ball in space. He shows off a more polished game that gives San Francisco a No. 2 option opposite Manningham.

Worst-case scenario: San Francisco has the worst-case example on its roster already in Crabtree, though Jenkins has more raw speed and less physical strength than Crabtree. Still, you don’t have to look far to find a receiver who excelled in college but struggled to adapt to the pros. If Jenkins flops in his rookie season, it will be because he shows off his speed but nothing else. Unable to separate from defenders at the line, he becomes a guy Alex Smith occasionally lofts one deep to or that San Francisco asks to return kicks, but no more.

2012 prediction: For all the knocks on the Jenkins pick (including on this blog, where I called it “shocking”), you can see why he intrigues San Francisco. The 49ers suddenly have a little depth at WR, too, so maybe Jenkins can ease his way in a bit. He’ll get his chances to prove he belongs. Smith finished with 50 catches, 841 yards and seven touchdowns for Baltimore last season. The 49ers can’t count on Jenkins to match that production. Let’s put down a guess of 35 grabs for about 600 yards, plus three or four TDs.

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  1. [...] SI write up on Jenkins Didn't see it posted and thought it was a good read even though it goes over things we already know about him. My only additional thoughts on the article is I'm not sure why so many draft "gurus" focus on what the guy can offer in the upcoming season. I believe the 9ers are counting on contributions from Jenkins this year but I don't think they envisioned him being a completed product on the field this season either. [...]

  2. [...] Burke also breaks down the game tape of first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and compares the Illinois wideout to Baltimore Ravens wideout Torrey Smith, a rookie who became a big contributor on last year’s Ravens offense. Burke: “He may find himself asked to carve out a niche like the one Baltimore’s Torrey Smith did in his rookie season. The two receivers carry similar size (Smith is 6-1, 205; Jenkins 6-1, 190), and both thrive while stretching the field. Smith averaged 16.8 yards per catch (50 for 841 yards) in 2011.” [...]