Here is my Wednesday column on A.J. Jenkins.
SANTA CLARA – Apparently, A.J. Jenkins is two different people.
When there are no fans or media watching him, when Jenkins is all alone with his teammates and his coaches, the former first-round pick is a fantastic receiver. That’s what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman said Tuesday. They said Jenkins had his best practices last Wednesday and Thursday, two practices which were closed to the media.
When non-49ers watch Jenkins play, like this Tuesday and Wednesday, he’s not so good.
He’s not as bad as he was last year, when he was slipping all over the field and dropping most of the passes thrown to him. He hasn’t dropped a single pass this week. And Wednesday, he caught about five passes in half-speed drills.
On the other hand, quarterbacks have thrown him just three passes in full-speed team drills this week. When the defense actually tries to stop the offense, instead of passing to Jenkins, the 49ers’ quarterbacks have chosen to pass to other receivers, like Quinton Patton (7 catches in full-speed team drills), Kassim Osgood (7 catches), Chad Hall (5 catches), Ricardo Lockette (5 catches) and Marlon Moore (4 catches).
That’s because Jenkins is rarely open. Wednesday he faced Nnamdi Asomugha a few times, and Jenkins could not create any separation from the former Pro Bowl cornerback, who turns 32 on July 6 and has lost more than a few steps. Once, Colt McCoy tried to force a pass to Jenkins when Asomugha was all over him. Asomugha easily knocked away the throw. He almost intercepted it.
Jenkins didn’t fare any better against the backup cornerbacks – Tramaine Brock, Perrish Cox, Marcus Cooper and Lowell Rose. Most of the time Jenkins was on the field, the quarterback dropped back and stared at the side of the field Jenkins wasn’t on. It’s like they expected him to be covered before he runs his route.
Clearly, Jenkins’ issue is eyesight. Not his own eyesight, but the eyesight of everyone else. He plays better when people aren’t watching him.
If he’s going to have a breakout second season, he’s going to need your help. If/when he jogs onto the field, turn off your television. Or go into the other room. If you’re at Candlestick watching the game, turn around or stare at your shoelaces.
To make sure Jenkins has the best possible chance to succeed, the 49ers’ public relations staff could assist 49ers fans by putting this friendly reminder on the Jumbotron whenever Jenkins enters the huddle: “Jenkins time: No looking at him.”
Let’s assume Jenkins really is no better in private than he is in public. Call it a wild assumption on my part. So, why did Harbaugh and Greg Roman praise him to the heavens for work no media saw?
That’s an easy one. He was propping up his player. He’s been propping up Jenkins since he drafted him last year. He has a vested interest in propping up this first-round draft pick.
All the way back on July 29 when Jenkins was one week into his first training camp, Harbaugh made this bold prediction: “I’m going to go on record and say A.J. Jenkins is going to be an outstanding football player.”
By saying that, Harbaugh unnecessarily tied his ego and his reputation to Jenkins. If Jenkins never lives up to his first-round draft status and Harbaugh’s declaration, that’s Harbaugh’s failure.
So, when Harbaugh props up Jenkins, Harbaugh really is propping up his own expertise as a coach and as an evaluator of talent.
Harbaugh never has propped up a player the way he’s propping up Jenkins, not even Alex Smith, who needed propping. Sure, Harbaugh called Smith a Pro Bowler after the 2011 season when he wasn’t. And that was a stretch, but at least Harbaugh had a point. Smith played well that year and won 13 regular-season games.
When it comes to Colin Kaepernick, Harbaugh never says, “Kaepernick played really well when you guys weren’t watching,” or, “Kaepernick will be great if only the stadium is empty.” Harbaugh let Kaepernick’s play speak for itself.
Jenkins is striving to reach the speak-for-itself level. So far, his comfort zone consists of private practices and half-speed drills. But if the 49ers were to make a depth chart today and Mario Manningham were healthy, Jenkins would be the No.4 wide receiver, at best. Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and Manningham would be the top-three guys, no matter what Harbaugh tells the media about private matters.
Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for The Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.