Jauan Jennings can help 49ers red-zone woes in 2020

Jauan Jennings #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Jauan Jennings #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

The 49ers haven’t been great in the red zone under Kyle Shanahan, but rookie wideout Jauan Jennings could help change that.

The San Francisco 49ers‘ epic turnaround from a two-win team in 2016 to an NFC champion in 2019 is nothing short of extraordinary, and head coach Kyle Shanahan deserves a ton of credit for getting all the pieces in place to make the Niners a perennial Super Bowl contender for years to come.

But for whatever the reasons, Shanahan’s red-zone offenses haven’t been particularly great.

Last year, despite San Francisco owning the No. 2 scoring offense in the league, the 49ers scored touchdowns in the red zone just 55.6 percent of the time, which ranked 20th. The year before, the offense ranked dead last in this same category, while 2017 wasn’t much better at 27th.

There are a number of speculative reasons for this inability to score regularly within the 20-yard line, perhaps stemming from Shanahan’s tendency to prefer quick-footed receivers who don’t necessarily boast size over opposing defensive backs. Smaller wideouts with speed can easily gain separation when there’s plenty of field with which to work.

But in the tight confines of the red zone, this isn’t always the case.

So that might explain why the Niners used their final pick of the 2020 NFL Draft on a slower, big-bodied wide receiver, Jauan Jennings out of Tennessee.

The 6-foot-3, 212-pound receiver ran a sluggish 4.72 40-yard time back at the NFL Scouting Combine, which at the time appeared to put him off San Francisco’s radar, at least banking on the idea Shanahan prefers speed over size. Jennings was never particularly fast in college, though, so the 40-yard time shouldn’t have come as a major surprise.

What Jennings does possess, however, is physicality and strength.

Thirty of his 59 receptions last year with the Volunteers resulted in broken tackles, which helps exemplify this. On top of that, Jennings’ knack for fighting for contested balls is something notable, too.

You can get this idea from his one-on-one reps in The Draft Network’s Brad Kelly’s video from the Senior Bowl below:

How Kyle Shanahan deploys Jauan Jennings for the 49ers

Granted, Jennings has a long way to go to ensure a spot on San Francisco’s 53-man roster this season. Just because he has some promise, breaks tackles and plays physical doesn’t mean he’s an automatic add to Shanahan’s roster.

That said, there’s an open niche for Jennings to fill.

Shanahan isn’t afraid to use “big slots” in from the outside, and it’s something he did with the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Mohamed Sanu back in 2016 with the Falcons.

For the record, Sanu finished with four receiving touchdowns that year, all of which came in the red zone.

Traditionally speaking, nickel cornerbacks covering slot receivers tend to be on the shorter size, typically ranging between 5-foot-9 and 6-foot-0. The 49ers’ own, K’Waun Williams, measures in at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. So it doesn’t take a lot to understand why putting a bigger-bodied receiver on the inside can create some mismatches against short-statured defensive backs, especially in situations where size and strength, not speed, are the attributes most desired.

Jennings might not be an every-down receiver anytime soon, although his route tree at Tennessee was good enough to suggest he can master Shanahan’s complex offense. That could still take time, though, and it would be a bit foolish to suggest the receiver will be responsible for a lot more than just this niche role in the red zone.

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Still, that’s an area in which the 49ers have struggled under Shanahan, and Jennings could end up providing that nice boost right away in a particular spot of need.