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The A.J. Jenkins Conundrum

We are mere weeks from the start of the 2013 NFL season, and the San Francisco 49ers are already in high gear preparing for a possible repeat appearance in the Super Bowl. As the season approaches, decisions will need to be made on coveted roster spots for the two-time defending NFC West champions.

Which brings us to second-year WR A.J. Jenkins.

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Wait, THAT’S A.J. Jenkins? Remind me who he is again?

Selected with the 31st overall pick in 2012, Jenkins was an explosive receiver coming out of Illinois. His talent – at least, according to general manager Trent Baalke – was undeniable, and the 49ers made an emphatic play for the prospect in last year’s draft.

Fast-forward to today – without a single catch in his rookie campaign, there are now reports about whether Jenkins will even latch on to the starting roster this season. He had been struggling thus far in training camp and in preseason play, enough for some pundits to begin calling for his head. Santa Clara Press-Democrat writer Lowell Cohn made no bones about it, practically begging the San Francisco front office to cut him, despite supposed issues of pride for Baalke.

Other reports, however, are on Jenkins’ side. Despite his lack of production, as well as half-hearted endorsements from offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Jenkins has received strong support from CB Donte Whitner, citing his ability to “take the top off” an opposing defense. All-Pro TE Vernon Davis – most likely sympathetic to Jenkins’ current plight of scrutiny as a high draft pick – recently cited his potential as a reason he may make the starting lineup as early as Week 1.

With all that in mind, let’s take a step back and evaluate Jenkins’ current predicament. After all, he is only entering his second year, having only played three games in his rookie season. While that may have had to do with his lack of productiveness with the team in 2012, it may have also had to do with the fact that they probably did not need him: Especially with Colin Kaepernick at the helm, Davis and WR Michael Crabtree, essentially, were all the team needed through the air. Jenkins was essentially more of an afterthought than Randy Moss in the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl.

Uh … too harsh?

Now, with the Achilles injury suffered by Crabtree in May, a bigger spotlight is being shone on a potential replacement opposite Anquan Boldin. With the expectations accentuated by his lack of production in 2012 as a first-round pick, it would be natural to target Jenkins as dead weight, and a prospect ripe for the cutting – especially with receivers like Kassim Osgood, Austin Collie and Quinton Patton waiting in the wings.

However, it is difficult to ignore the endorsements of his teammates – especially Davis, who similarly struggled in his first years as a 49er, with the tag of “sixth overall pick” precariously hanging over his own head. It took him all of four years to be considered an elite receiving tight end in his own right. All things considered, perhaps Davis sees a kindred spirit in Jenkins – a raw talent that hasn’t put it together just yet.

Remember this rant? This was because of our current All-Pro TE.

Furthermore, “potential” can take a player a long way, and perhaps give a player more lives than a newborn kitten, in the right situation. And, again, Jenkins possesses many qualities that could blossom into a starting – maybe even elite – receiving weapon. To let that go may come back to bite them in the future.

While many pundits are stuck on “production NOW” (and rightfully so), we’re still talking about a first-round receiver in his SECOND season. Imagine if the same realistic talk hovered around someone like Davis or Crabtree entering their sophomore seasons.

All I’m saying is give the guy another chance. If, by the end of the preseason – or the end of the first quarter of the regular season – he has not improved, by all means, criticize him to no end. But don’t cut ties just yet. It’s not like a Super Bowl is hanging in the balance between the decision to keep Jenkins or go with, say, a Marlon Moore.

Right?

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