Niners select Illinois wideout in first round
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) – Just for fun, general manager Trent Baalke wrote A.J. Jenkins’ name on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope. If all went according to plan, he would be San Francisco’s selection with the 30th pick in the NFL draft.
Turns out Jenkins was still on the board Thursday night – and the Illinois wide receiver had no idea he would be a first-rounder. In fact, his sister had to get him from the bathroom when the 49ers called, and he hustled to the phone.
“Yeah, I sprinted. I didn’t know if it was real or not, because during the middle of the draft my cousin had called my phone and was playing with me,” Jenkins said. “It was like a little joke. It’s crazy. … I was in the bathroom, and my sister started saying, ‘Your phone’s ringing.’ ‘Ah, you’re kidding,’ I’m saying, ‘you’re playing a joke on me.”‘
“I’m out of words right now,” added Jenkins, whose ability to play several spots in Jim Harbaugh’s offense put him high on the Niners’ list. “I thought it was the perfect fit to be honest. I didn’t think the phone call was going to come so soon. I’m honored and I’m blessed. It’s crazy.”
The 49ers took another step to boost their suddenly deep receiving corps by adding Jenkins, the fourth receiver taken.
He will join a unit that already features Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree on the reigning NFC West champion 49ers, who went 13-3 to end an eight-year playoff drought before losing in overtime of the NFC title game to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
“Just going to an organization with Randy Moss and Crabtree, I’m going to learn a lot,” Jenkins said. “But me coming into it as a rookie, I think I could do great, like going downfield. I could play the slot, the outside, I could do the option routes. I mean I could do it all.”
The 6-foot, 192-pound Jenkins had 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns in his senior season for the Fighting Illini and led the Big Ten Conference with an average of 6.92 receptions per game. He caught 19 TD passes during his four-year college career.
He can’t quite believe he will now join Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s former team.
“I always loved Jerry Rice,” Jenkins said. “And I feel blessed and an honor, man, to be playing in the same uniform as that man. That is crazy. That’s crazy.”
San Francisco is building a roster to make another run at a Super Bowl after getting oh so close in Harbaugh’s first season, when he was named NFL Coach of the Year. Building a more explosive receiving corps became a focus after the Niners’ receivers managed only one catch for three yards in the playoff loss to New York. They acquired Manningham from that Giants team, and took a chance that Moss will still be the dynamic wideout he once was after a year out of football.
Baalke and Harbaugh expect Jenkins will blend right into that group – and learn a lot from the veterans in the process.
“He’s a guy that’s very sure-handed, very good with the ball in his hands,” Baalke said. “If there’s an area that A.J.’s got to get better, it’s probably the weight room, and he will.”
The 49ers have all 11 defensive starters back for coordinator Vic Fangio’s group that led the league in stopping the run. This became a drastically different draft for Baalke, whose selections the past two years became immediate impact players – offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in 2010 and then linebacker Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks last season as a rookie.
“You let the board speak, best player available. We had an opportunity to trade back and chose not to,” Baalke said. “Had we decided to trade back there’s a good chance we would have lost him.”
Jenkins visited the 49ers earlier this month and told his agent it was his best meeting of all after also speaking to the Baltimore Ravens, the Jaguars he grew up rooting for in Jacksonville, Kansas City, Detroit and St. Louis.
Not only did he ace Harbaugh’s standard sports quiz for potential players – questions such as the name of Green Bay’s stadium and who won the Heisman Trophy two years ago, Jenkins recalled – he impressed with his route-running ability and speed. He ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in February, though Baalke points out: “Really, who cares? It’s what they play to.”
“Everything lined up,” Harbaugh said. “Trent put his name in an envelope and said, ‘This is the guy we’re going to pick,’ and it held true. He’s a strong, tough player.”
The Niners owned their lowest pick since choosing 31st in 2004, when former general manager Terry Donahue traded down twice from their original 16th spot. Jenkins sounded as surprised as anybody that the 49ers called. He said he was stunned when he recognized the area code from the South Bay.
“Wow, honestly I didn’t know where I was going to end up at,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be with a great organization.”
On Friday, San Francisco has the 61st overall pick in the second round and then No. 92 in the third round.
“We don’t tweak the board. We don’t move people up, so that now all of a sudden it looks different,” Baalke said. “The board stays as is throughout the draft.”