Whether it’s fair or not, every move San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver A.J. Jenkins makes this year will be done under a microscope. After a disastrous rookie season that saw him struggle to get on the field and drop the only pass thrown his way, Jenkins has a long way to go to prove he won’t be a first round mistake. Because of injuries, the 49ers need Jenkins to step up now and the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not he can prove his worth.
When Jenkins was selected with the 30th pick of the first round in the 2012 draft, there was some initial shock. Jenkins was seen as more of a second or even third round player and wasn’t expected to go on day one. The 49ers were confident in their pick though, and general manager Trent Baalke went so far as to say he wrote Jenkins’ name on a piece of paper and put in an envelope before the draft even started.
“We did that this morning,” Baalke said. “Played around a little bit, and his name was the one that we wrote down and sealed the envelope. Once again, just let the board speak.”
Even though the pick was a curious one, Baalke’s track record had left little reason to doubt him. News then came out that the St. Louis Rams had their eyes on Jenkins with the first pick in the second round. It looked like the 49ers were ahead of the curve again and expectations started to grow for the new San Francisco receiver.
It didn’t take long for excitement to turn to doubt as Jenkins appeared to be out of shape at the team’s rookie mini camp. Head coach Jim Harbaugh stuck up for A.J. and blamed the media for the perception that Jenkins wasn’t cutting it early on.
“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.”
As the 2012 season progressed, even Harbaugh’s early praise couldn’t hide the fact that Jenkins was nowhere near ready to be a contributor on offense. Late in the year, injuries to Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham opened the door for another receiver to step up opposite Michael Crabtree. Jenkins could barely make a dent. The 49ers instead gave a majority of the snaps to Randy Moss who had clearly lost a step at that point in his career.
Even before Crabtree was injured, their was hope that Jenkins could make major strides in 2013. He wasn’t going to beat out Crabtree or Anquan Boldin, but he could have been a used in the slot and in different formations. Now that Crabtree is out, he’ll be thrust into the action and it will be sink or swim.
It’s hard to make any kind of a judgement on Jenkins at this point. News from offseason mini camps had Jenkins making plays and the coaches were, once again, singing his praises.
“Oh, he just made some clutch catches for us moving the ball,” Roman said. “Just made plays, did all the right things, made plays when he had the opportunity. And he just needs to continue to do that.”
With expectations once again raised, Jenkins has had mixed results early on in training camp and is struggling to hold onto the ball. He will undoubtedly have his good days and bad days but the real measuring stick will be when games actually start. He’ll be one of the 49ers whose preseason performance will go a long way in telling if he’s ready to make that jump to the next level. Jenkins will have plenty of competition in Kyle Williams, Ricardo Lockette, and rookie Quinton Patton. All of whom will be ready to step in and take his spot should he falter.
Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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