49ers roster 2021: Jauan Jennings could be a key X-factor

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

Jauan Jennings could end up going from a 49ers practice squad player his rookie year to a potential starting slot receiver in year two.

If one was to make an argument why NFL offseason programs are so vitally important, they could easily use San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings as a case study.

The Niners used their final pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to grab Jennings, a 6-foot-3 and 212-pound physical pass-catcher out of Tennessee, yet only got to work him out remotely before training camp, as the pandemic eliminated rookie minicamp and organized team activities.

While there could have been other factors at play, Jennings clearly was hindered by the lack of onfield workouts, and it showed during his rookie camp, ultimately resulting in his placement on the practice squad instead of the 53-man roster.

Heading into 2021, though, signs are looking as if Jennings is right in the running for a starting slot-receiver role.

For starters, the opportunity is there. San Francisco is looking to identify a crucial WR3 on its roster in the wake of Kendrick Bourne leaving this offseason to the New England Patriots. While Jennings is anything but guaranteed the job, an early report from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn at this year’s OTA installment suggested Jennings was on the right path:

"Beat starting nickelback K’Waun Williams down the seam for a 25-yard catch during seven-on-sevens. Garoppolo threw the pass. Jennings looks like he’s in much better shape than he was a year ago as a rookie. He looks stronger and faster. Maybe he will be the slot receiver who replaces Kendrick Bourne."

From a disappointment to an apparent big-time contributor… the two-year trajectory for Jennings, at least according to the hope.

Why Jauan Jennings improves with 49ers in 2021

Jennings lacked the solid route-running skills and focus during last year’s training camp, probably due to those physical reps he otherwise would have taken in previous workouts if the pandemic didn’t cancel them.

Going back at his college stats, take a look at his senior season:

Jauan Jennings Receiving & Rushing Table

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 6/28/2021.

Of those 59 receptions in 2019, Jennings broke tackles on 29 of them. That’s impressive. And despite his sluggish speed, Jennings’ physicality and build as a possession receiver could provide even more upside than a player he could possibly replace, Bourne.

Read More: Jauan Jennings an early favorite for 49ers’ slot receiver

It would appear as if head coach Kyle Shanahan might tab Jennings to serve as a big slot, not the prototypical sub-6-foot receivers many other teams use in this context. So, Jennings beating a shorter nickel corner like Williams could end up being what transpires on the field over the course of the season.

Why Jauan Jennings bottoms out with 49ers in 2021

Despite Cohn’s report that Jennings looks faster, analysts and fans are going to continue to look back at the receiver’s paltry 4.72 40-yard time from his NFL Scouting Combine. He might be faster, but Jennings’ game has never been about speed.

And that time certainly hindered his draft stock.

While it’s an open-ended question how well Jennings will use his physicality against pro-level competition — and that’s a good question to ask — the bigger concern could be with Jennings’ route abilities, which will have to be tuned to a greater extent if he’s not able to beat even modestly fast defensive backs within the NFL ranks.

A year ago during camp, these were problematic. It’s also one thing to beat cornerbacks during contact-less OTAs. It’s another when those same defensive backs are allowed to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, which will happen during training camp and into the preseason.

Jennings still has a lot to prove, and it’s possible he never quite gets there.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster, expected role

Jennings is by no means a lock to make the 53-man roster this season. Despite having relatively few proven options at wide receiver behind the presumed starters, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers have plenty of bodies vying for one of perhaps four open spots behind those two names.

Fortunately, and that’s the must-do item during OTAs, Jennings has already started separating himself from the competition. Right now, it appears as if his primary competition piece heading into camp will be veteran wideout Mohamed Sanu, who could also serve as the Niners’ starting slot receiver, potentially pushing Jennings down the depth chart a bit.

But probably not off of it altogether.

As long as Jennings stays on his current trajectory, he should be able to earn a roster spot. It wouldn’t be shocking if Shanahan tabs Sanu as the top option out of the slot with Jennings mixed in for deeper four-wide packages and as a key reserve. Yet Jennings could also wind up being another camp standout, possibly making Sanu a backup instead.

For a player who almost went undrafted a year ago and found himself on the practice squad his rookie season, then going into a situation where he’d be essentially viewed as a starter, Jennings’ two-year trajectory has been quite impressive.

Next. 49ers' 10 best late-round NFL Draft picks in franchise history. dark