How A.J. Jenkins might help the Niners offense this season

SANTA CLARA – The Niners first round pick A.J. Jenkins spoke to the Bay Area media in person for the first time this afternoon. He’s warm, talkative and humble.

Also, he has huge hands. After the interview I told Kevin Lynch that Jenkins’ hands looked like E.T.’s hands. In a second interview a few minutes later Jenkins told the media this: “They used to call me E.T back in high school. I got picked on a lot for my hands. But they came to good use.”

He seems like a really nice kid and I wish him all the best.

Here’s some technical stuff which might interest you.

The National Football Post ranked Jenkins the 167th best prospect in the draft and they gave him a 5.9 grade. Here’s how they define a 5.9: “Has a deficient area of his playing or physical skills that he SHOULD overcome and contribute as a backup and spot player only.”

His deficient areas are his strength and quickness according to NFP: “Hasn’t been asked to handle much press coverage and/or eve man coverage for that matter playing in the Illinois spread offense. Is going to need time to get used to seeing defenders up in his grill. Doesn’t seem overly physical or quick in order to handle press coverage.”

Only if he improves on those deficiencies can he become a good backup or spot player, according to NFP.

Let’s give Jenkins the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he gets quicker and stronger this offseason in the Niners workout program. In that case, how will he contribute to the offense?

Last year, the Niners used their first round pick, Aldon Smith, as a spot player, too. He was the third-down pass rusher. The Niners could use A.J. Jenkins in a similar way.

He could be there third-down blitz buster. Here’s what I mean by that.

Defenses love to blitz Alex Smith and the Niners offense on third down. The Ravens and Cardinals beat the Niners that way last season.

To beat the blitz, Harbaugh puts a hot route into each play – usually a shallow cross. Chris Brown of Grantland explained this concept in this article, but I’ll explain it for you here.

On third down, if Moss lines in the slot next to the X and runs a seam he’ll get double covered.  Then Vernon Davis, lined up at tight end, runs an out and gets double covered as well. Crabtree, the X, runs a deep in, and Jenkins, the Z, runs the hot route (the shallow cross). If the defense doesn’t blitz, Smith throws to Crabtree for a 12 yard gain. If the defense does blitz, Smith throws immediately to Jenkins underneath, and it’s his job to pick up the first down after the catch.

Jenkins ran this route more than any other route when he played at Illinois. He’s fast and he has big hands to snatch the ball out of the air as he sprints across the middle of the field. In the Big 10 he could routinely beat defenders to the edge, turn the corner and pick up first downs, but he didn’t break many tackles.

Is Jenkins a better third-down threat than Coby Fleener? No way. But Fleener wouldn’t run the hot route for the Niners – he’d run the seam. I guess the Niners already liked their players who can run the seam, and they felt they needed a guy who could run the hot route and be Alex Smith’s favorite check down target.

Jenkins fits Jim Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy and the Alex Smith’s style of play, but will he elevate the Niners from awful to adequate on third down? I don’t think so. Do you?

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