San Francisco 49ers WR A.J. Jenkins was traded to the Chiefs for receiver Jon Baldwin. This ends Jenkins’ short and disappointing tenure with the 49ers after being taken 30th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
In his brief time with the 49ers, he was on the field for 47 total snaps all of last season including the playoffs, He ran 22 routes, and dropped the only pass that came his way. What looked to be a potentially promising career with the 49ers is now over.
But where did it go wrong?
The first round off the 2012 NFL Draft had just concluded. The 49ers had just taken Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick about 20 minutes earlier. It was a pick that nobody except for the 49ers’ front office expected. Jenkins wasn’t the top receiver available by most draft boards and it felt like a reach for the team.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke were convinced that they landed a diamond in the rough with their first selection of the draft.
“Trent Baalke last night put his name in an envelope and said ‘this is who we’re going to pick’,” Harbaugh recalled that night with a smile on his face. “We all agreed on it and it held true. That was the guy we wanted. That was the highest player on our board when the time came to pick him. We’re very excited about the pick.”
There was a conviction that Jenkins would be the type of receiver that could heavily improve the offensive passing game.
“We like the talent,” Harbaugh explained. “He’s a gold helmet guy and he’s obviously had a very productive career at Illinois. He’s a guy that fits our system very well, from a trait standpoint, from a skills standpoint and has all the off-the-field intangibles that we’re looking for as well. Feel he’s going to be a great fit it in the locker room, a great addition to the offense, and now it’s up to him. It’s up to him to come in here and compete.”
And it seemed like the 49ers front office would be on to something.
In the previous draft, Baalke and Harbaugh orchestrated one of the best 49ers draft classes in recent memory. They locked in sack machine Aldon Smith, starting fullback Bruce Miller, a star potential cornerback in Chris Culliver, and a great change-of-pace back in Kendall Hunter. Oh, and the starting quarterback of the team Colin Kaepernick.
There was optimism that Jenkins would turn out great for the team. After all, Harbaugh had that kind of conviction that Jenkins would be the perfect fit for the team.
Film on Jenkins from his college days suggest that he has that potential. He was a reach for sure for the 49ers at the 30th overall pick. But if it worked out, then it would be worth it. Physically, Jenkins had what it took to be a good receiver. He was great in open space, appeared to have solid hands and had pretty good footwork. However, one thing that was a question was whether or not he could handle NFL-type cornerbacks. It’s a learning curve that Jenkins never got to overcome.
One thing to remember is that Jenkins saw limited action as a rookie. And that’s part of the reason why his development with the 49ers faltered. That came in part due to his inability to impress during training camp and practices. In his limited on-field action, he never found a way to make a strong impact.
Prior to last season’s training camp, Harbaugh heard the rumblings about Jenkins and in an impromptu manner, publicly scolded the media and the so-called experts for doubting him.
“A.J. Jenkins was an outstanding football player when he got here,” Harbaugh said late July last year. “His progress has been very, very good and exceeded expectations. For those, the scribes, the pundits, so-called experts who have gone so far as to say he’s going to be a bust, (they) should just stop. I recommend that. 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. What he’s done in the offseason has led us to believe nothing but that he will be an outstanding football player in the National Football League.
“I’m going to track of these names of these so-called experts that are making these comments and there’s going to be an I told you so. I forsee that happening.”
Bold words from Harbaugh before Jenkins even saw on-field action in the preseason.
Maybe this is the acting of a coach defending his own player. Or in a sense, he’s defending himself and Baalke for a pick they both knew that would get scrutiny. It’s not that Harbaugh doubted himself, but there’s a certain part of him that always wants to be one step ahead of anyone else. And by doing so, he put that claim on the heads of every media “pundit” out there.
Quite simply, Jenkins was a bust for the 49ers. He wasn’t able to separate from the line. And in the time when he was targeted, especially in the preseason, he just never showed that kind of potential that he displayed at Illinois. The patience was wearing thin and it’s hard to justify a high draft pick with the continual disappointment.
This isn’t to knock Jenkins completely, but there is a learning curve in the NFL and it’s harder for a player when in his rookie year, the playbook changed completely with the quarterback change.
Since Harbaugh took over as head coach with the 49ers, the receiving numbers haven’t been all that impressive. Even though the team was a run-first type of offense, only one receiver showed signs of consistent success: Michael Crabtree. Crabtree had a slow start in 2011 but finished strong. He then caught on with Kaepernick after the quarterback switch. it took two years to see these two finally click, but that probably was done so in part by absorbing and understanding the playbook that changed so much.
When Harbaugh took over as the 49ers’ head coach, we’ve seen short, unsuccessful stints by receivers like Braylon Edwards, Randy Moss, Brett Swain and Ted Ginn to name a few. Their stats weren’t impressive and for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, it’s a surprise the receivers really didn’t do much to stand out. (The jury is still out on Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams since both are recovering from injuries. We still don’t know for sure how good they can be in a more prominent role with the team.)
This isn’t to knock the passing game entirely. The tight ends ended up playing a significant role with the team and especially in the playoffs, Vernon Davis was a force that couldn’t be stopped. In a sense, this offense is still a tight end friendly playbook. That’s what offensive coordinator Greg Roman operates. Making an impression as a wide receiver is a little bit harder with the 49ers now.
Did Harbaugh realize the playbook he employed would be too much of a learning curve for Jenkins? Or was Jenkins just not mentally ready to handle such a complex playbook — even with a major mid-season change?
To be fair, Jenkins’ bust label only exists because he was drafted in the first round and now he’s no longer with the team. He shouldn’t have gone that high but the 49ers reached for him at that point. The pressure was on. (The Rams also were rumored to be high on Jenkins, too.)
But after one full season, Jenkins should have shown signs of improvement. He should have done everything to make an impact on the team. Was he prepared for it mentally and physically?
Now we’re left to wonder what if. Jenkins never ran the hill with Jerry Rice. Could Jenkins have salvaged his 49ers career if he trained with the greatest of all time and learned from him? Since Jenkins never followed up on his promise, we’ll never know.
Harbaugh noted that a fresh start for Jenkins would be good as he met with the media only a few hours after the trade was announced. He insisted that a fresh start could lead to a resurrection of a career. Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter came to Harbaugh’s mind of a receiver getting a chance to excel in a new environment. Harbaugh even cited his own career as a perfect example of the benefits of second chances.
“Feel like it’s a fresh start for both young men and hopefully it will be a positive for both of them,” said Harbaugh on Jenkins and the newly acquired Jon Baldwin.
And this is what both the 49ers and Jenkins needed. Now with the Chiefs, Jenkins can just wipe the slate clean of a bad first year in the NFL. And for Harbaugh and the 49ers, they can just move on and focus on more important things.
The marriage between the two was questionable at first and only after 16 months, the divorce ended it.
Jenkins shouldn’t have gone that high in the draft. But Jenkins also could have done so much more to save his 49ers career.
The front office reached for Jenkins but maybe they knew he had potential. The situation and environment for Jenkins was a lot and maybe it wasn’t the best fit.
There’s no need to play the blame game now and linger on it. It’s time for both sides to move on. They both need this fresh start.