The 49ers added a ton of speed in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft with the selections of wide receiver AJ Jenkins out of Illinois and running back LaMichael James out of Oregon. As good as the 49ers were defensively last season, and they were good ranking among the best in the league in almost every category. And as good as they were running the football. San Francisco struggled at stretching the field and putting points on the board in the red zone. The team was severely lacking speed at WR and offensive play makers as a whole.
The selections of Jenkins and James presents some intriguing possibilities not only for the next years team but years down the road. The team has some depth at RB right now with Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and Kendall Hunter already on board before the James selection. The 49ers are not only setting themselves up with a play maker in the Darren Sproles or Ray Rice (if you want Harbaughs comparison) that will bring a different look for the present team. James is a player that despite his small stature, coach Jim Harbaugh likes in the red zone.
Harbaugh went on to say that he feels James’ production, amount of carries, durability, yards and touchdowns proves to him that he can be an every down back. The theme of the press conference was competition, of course the additions at RB do not mean the team is trying to replace Gore. But they clearly have their eye on the future at the position drafting Kendall Hunter and James in consecutive drafts. James is the highest RB the 49ers have taken since Ricky Watters in 1992. RB isn’t the only thing the 49ers have in mind for James, who probably will also succeed Ted Ginn Jr as the teams punt and kick returner in the near future. Here’s what Harbaugh had to say on that subject.
And that may be X amount of time before he’s really ready to do that. We’ve got a pretty good darn returner in Ted Ginn as it is now. But that will definitely create a possibility down the road for us.
He’s proven that he’s a multi-down back, in our eyes.
As for AJ Jenkins. After the initial shock of his selection, the 49ers pick was validated a bit by news from other team sources. The Rams were counting on selecting Jenkins with their second round pick until the 49ers took him off the board. In fact, the Rams gave Jenkins a similar grade to the drafts top WR Justin Blackmon.
Jenkins joins new 49er WRs Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and holdovers Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr and Kyle Williams. As I said on draft night, nobody knows what, if anything Moss will give the team. Jenkins role this season likely will be limited to the guy who takes Kyle Williams roster spot. And the snaps Ted Ginn Jr would have received if not for his addition. Depending on how much Moss produces, his rookie ceiling is probably as the teams #3 WR.
Although he likely won’t be one of the 49ers top receivers this season, he will get a chance to be in a wide open competition and could surprise some people. Jenkins was extremely productive in a bad passing Illinois offense. He has very good hands, he runs smooth routes, comes out of his breaks well and of course, is fast, very fast. He provides an element to the team that they do not have and will have every opportunity to show his stuff as a rookie.
Jenkins is another player who could factor into the kick and punt returner role in the future. For now, he and James will provide the team with depth at the position they didn’t have last season (and we know how that ended up). No matter how much, or how little Jenkins contributes as a rookie. He factors in big with the teams future plans. Moss is on a one year deal, Manningham a two year deal and their futures beyond next season are cloudy at best (though I believe Manningham will light it up in SF). Ginn is on a one year deal and likely won’t be brought back once the team feels comfortable with James and or Jenkins handling the return duties. Crabtree is signed through 2014 and is coming off his best season in the NFL. Crabs still has a long ways to go to measure up to his draft hype.
At the end of the day, Jenkins could end up the third, fourth or even fifth WR on the depth chart this season. And James could end up behind Gore, Jacobs and Hunter at RB. Both will compete with one another to be the backup return man this year and to set himself up to be the future at the position. I’m confident Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman will find a way to capitalize on the teams new found speed and utilize both Jenkins and James in some way. I’m sure Brad Seely won’t mind giving both a look returning kicks. Even if we don’t see much of them on the field this season. Even if we forget about them in the midst of fighting for our sixth superbowl. We could be looking at the teams future kick returners and starters at the WR and RB position.
The offense that was lacking play makers now has fans and media alike wondering how Harbaugh will work them all into the rotation. That’s a far cry from wondering who the heck that is playing WR and why in the world Anthony Dixon and Kyle Williams are still around. Harbaugh and his coaching staff did wonders with the team last season turning them around from 6-10 to 14-4. With a real off season, real play makers and some real speed on the outside, it’s going to be fun to watch and see what they do with the offense. Alex Smith you have your play makers, Michael Crabtree, it’s no longer a cake walk to the starting lineup. 49er fans, if Ted Ginn Jr gets hurt this year, we’re going to be alright. Things are looking good in San Francisco these days.