During the free agency period 49ers GM Trent Baalke shocked many fans by signing wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. The shocks were of the good kind, but were shock signings nonetheless because Moss did not play in the NFL last season and the 49ers were not expected to be a landing destination for Manningham. Then the 49ers drafted receiver A.J. Jenkins with their first pick to add to a crowded receiving corps that includes those previously mentioned, in addition to Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brent Swain. A crowded receiving corps is a good problem for Jim Harbaugh to have. But was Jenkins drafted also as an insurance policy on Moss and Crabtree?
At the start of the draft, the 49ers were fully committed to drafting Jenkins if he was still available at the 30th overall pick. Baalke and his scouts recognized a player with great speed and hands who could give the 49ers offense a vertical receiving threat they lacked last season. The slot position is supposed to be occupied by Moss, however, with so many of the unknowns that come with him the 49ers knew they could not just rely on the receiver. Last season Braylon Edwardswas supposed to be the answer at the slot receiver but he proved ineffective because of injuries. After that Ginn saw the most action at the slot position but he was not a consistent target defenses feared. That’s where Jenkins comes in.
At training camp, the seven receivers will all be battling for what will most likely be only five or six receiving spots on the roster. Jenkins, Crabtree and Manningham are three guaranteed locks to make the team. You can throw Ginn in with the group as well since he is the 49ers main return man on punts and kickoffs. Despite what happen to Williams in the NFC Championship game he will most likely make the team as well. That leaves Moss most likely battling for a roster spot with Swain. One would think if Moss can show he still has good value as a receiver and can keep his ego in check, he would beat out Swain for a roster spot. Maybe, but Moss will need to have a really great training camp, one that impresses Harbaugh and his coaches so much, they are forced to add him to the final roster. Since we don’t know what we will get from Moss, he is really on par with Williams, Ginn and Swain in terms of making the team. The big advantage Williams, Ginn and Swain have over Moss is all three not only give the 49ers value at receiver, but also at special teams. At this point Jenkins looks like the best option for the slot position.
After Jenkins was drafted I wrote, “Michael Crabtree, you are now on notice.” Crabtree will be the number one receiver at the start of the season, but the patience of Niner fans towards the receiver is wearing thin. Over three seasons, Crabtree has started in 40 games compiling 176 receptions, 2,246 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Not exactly number one receiver stats nor what we would expect from a 10th overall draft pick. Crabtree’s numbers have steadily increased in each of his three seasons in the league and he did have his best season in 2011. However, Crabtree’s career best in receptions (72) and receiving yards (874) last season were erased in the playoffs. In the two playoffs games he combined to put up a dud of five receptions for 28 yards and one touchdown. Crabtree had a great opportunity in the playoffs to show he is a bona fide number one receiver but disappeared after he dropped three passes against the Saints and was not targeted until the third quarter of the Giants game. One would think the Giants defense was reason for Crabtree’s disappearing act in the NFC Championship game. However, all you need to do is look at Vernon Davis’ stat line in the game (3 receptions, 112 yards, two touchdowns) to know Crabtree could have made an impact but was not able to.
Crabtree has never played in a preseason game nor has he gone through a full training camp with the 49ers. This might help explain why he is not putting up the production we all expect from him but that excuse can only be extended so far. The former Texas Tech receiver is entering the fourth-year of his six-year contract. With the way the 49ers played last season, the team might be committed to Crabtree contractually over the next three seasons but they will not wait around for him to put up number one receiver numbers.
This is why Jenkins was drafted. As he learns how to play receiver in the NFL, he will start at the slot position this season because it is a good fit for him because of his speed and great route running skills. This will allow the 49ers not to have to lean on Jenkins to be the number one receiver. Not yet at least. Should Crabtree regress in 2012, expect Jenkins to take over as the number one receiver in 2013.