Last season, the San Francisco 49ers offense had to manufacture big, explosive plays (which are accurately categorized as 16 yards or more) in the passing game through schematic design and heavy reliance on tight end Vernon Davis. Once teams started to bracket Davis, who often would do his work in the seam, the offense was hamstrung by the lack of an outside vertical threat that could take advantage of the extra attention paid to the star TE.
Because of that, general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh went into the off-season seeking playmakers, and getting them by signing Mario Manningham, who’s coming off a signature Superbowl catch, and Randy Moss, who came out of retirement. However, both targets are not entirely reliable as Manningham has a tendency to drop passes, while Moss plays whenever he damn well feels like it.
Enter A.J. Jenkins.
The 49ers selected the Illinois wide receiver with their 30th overall last week much to the surprise of many, most notably ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, who expected the prospect to go a full 24 hours later. However, what the 49ers brass saw was the added dimension he brought to an offensive scheme that does an exceptional job of getting its players running in space — the big play threat.
In college, Jenkins came from an offense where he showed his versatility and was used in many ways that he’ll be used in San Francisco. He lined up outside and inside, which gives the 49ers more options with him in their offense. He also ran a significant amount of slants, which can be seen in the 49ers offense, and crossing routes, which amount to horizontal stretches.
These crossing routes came in many forms, most notably shallow crosses in the “Mesh” concept that saw Jenkins come across the formation at a depth of roughly five-to-six yards, giving him the opportunity to do damage after the catch — something he does well.
However, while these types of routes are common in college as many offenses use some spin-off of the “spread” offense, Jenkins was not limited to them. He also showed the ability to win one-on-one battles vertically against defensive backs for a big catch, as witnessed against Northwestern last season.
Early into the 4th quarter with Illinois trailing by five, Jenkins and his teammates came to the line on second down, and they needed either yards. Jenkins, whose aligned inside as the slot receiver to the Field (wide) side, was preparing to run what’s called a “Post-Corner” route while on the outside, and his teammate would run a “Go” route that served as a clear-out for Jenkins.
At the snap Jenkins burst off the line, and after a seven-yard vertical stem, he planted his outside foot and broke to the inside on what initially looked like a Post route.
After driving to the inside on what looked like an inside-breaking route, Jenkins planted his inside foot, shifted his shoulders and drove to the outside, leaving the deep safety coming downhill to attack a ball that was not going to be thrown.
This execution showed the Jenkins’ potential on a single play, displaying his versatility to align inside while also showing the ability to run routes with a high degree of difficulty that require attention to detail (i.e. footwork, shoulders) while also coming up with the big play.
The 49ers surprised many when they selected Jenkins in the first round because of the other names on the board, such as Stephen Hill of Georgia Tech and Rueben Randle of LSU. However, while those two prospects are also very talented, Jenkins fits the offense in San Francisco better.
He is quick-footed, tough, has big hands that enable him to snatch passes of all sorts, possesses the body control to adjust to misplaced passes, the long speed to do damage vertically, and he’s versatile in his alignments.
All these characteristics made him worthy of a first-round selection, and they could lead to him being one of the most productive receivers in the 2012 draft class.