Well, Trent Baalke and the 49ers have done it again…
In the this year’s NFL Draft, they managed to pull two draft picks out of their sleeve that no one saw coming. This was not much unlike the 2011 draft when Baalke and then first year NFL head coach, Jim Harbaugh, put their heads together to find two key pieces in building a foundation for the 49ers defense in years to come: Aldon Smith and Chris Culliver.
Both players paid dividends in their first season. Smith’s efforts (14 sacks) won him NFL Rookie of the Year award and Culliver developed into the teams nickel cornerback and a valuable contributor for one of the league’s top special teams units. Coach and General Manager have earned instant credibility with their ability to evaluate and select players that will have a lasting future on their roster.
This year they decided to go on the offensive with their first two selections.
With the 3oth overall pick in the 2012 draft, they selected wide receiver AJ Jenkins from the University of Illinois. Like many others, I was rooting for the Niners to pick Coby Fleener, a versatile 6’6″ tigt end from Harbaugh’s last coaching stop, Stanford University. When I heard the name AJ Jenkins, my response was, “who?”
But, after watching some game film on Jenkins, I can see that he is a vertical threat, has excellent hands, and he is involved in all levels of the passing game. He catches the ball on all types of routes including the post, fade, slant, shallow cross, deep out and corner. He also lines up in multiple positions, in the slot, on and off the ball and is deployed in motion to take advantage of his speed.
Watch the clips of his Big Ten game against Northwestern and see what Harbaugh was talking about when he described Jenkins as being “very versatile … we probably would start him out at one position and teach him that. Then we’ll transition with him. He’s a very smart guy, very bright guy. I don’t think it will be a problem for him to pick up and learn multiple positions.”
If you are intrigued and you want to see more of Jenkins and the versatility he will bring to the 49er offense, watch his highlight reel. Some people [bloggers] have compared him to New York Giants all-pro wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks. And, upon closer review, Jenkins’ long arms and great catch range make that a fair comparison.
In the 2nd round, the 49ers stayed with the theme of speed and added Pac-12 standout running back LaMichael James with the 61st overall pick. When asked about LaMichael James’ ability to fit into the 49ers, there were a number of areas that Harbaugh felt his second round pick could make an impact.
“I’ve seen him play up close. I’ve seen all the things he can do and lost games to his team, large degree of his efforts,” said Harbaugh.
When he faced him as head coach at Stanford, Harbaugh described James as an overall “explosive” player and that the characteristics that stood out to him in James’ game - ”change of direction, speed, playmaking ability, durability, number of carries, number of yards, number of touchdowns” – were all elements that make him a special player.
In reaction to the suggestion that the selection of James indicated an indictment of Frank Gore, Harbaugh insisted that, “he will come in to compete with solid football players … winning football players … it’s gonna get real real, real fast.”
Regarding both Jenkins’ and James’ opportunity to compete on the team, Harbaugh explained that “they definitely have great ability, and speed … a lot more to their game than just speed, both of those youngsters that we’ve added in this draft. They’ll get opportunity and they’ll have the license to go out and compete and find their role. Whether that’s a contributor, starter, how much of a contributor if they are a starter. That will unfold.”
He went on to compare James “favorably” to all-pro running back Ray Rice and confirmed that someday he could see James handling a similar type of workload as Rice in Baltimore. Not only has Rice has averaged 240 carries and 1095 yards per year since he was a rookie in 2008, but he has also amassed an average of 63 receptions and 559 receiving yards per year as well.
For now, I’ll settle for James’ presence on the field providing a constant threat to beat the defense to the edge with fly sweeps, outside zone plays, or screens. They are also getting a durable one-cut runner and a weapon in the passing game as both a primary and check down receiver. Watch James’ snaps against in state rival, Oregon State University, to get a feel for his playmaking ability.
James should factor in as an explosive playmaker in more ways then one.
When addressing criticism that James would project to be nothing more then a third down back, Harbaugh said that he “doesn’t think that he’ll be limited to just a third down back. You have to take into consideration fourth down, too. This is somebody that has a chance to evolve into a punt returner, a kickoff returner … He’s proven that he’s a multi-down back in our eyes.”
Finally, Trent Baalke offered his thoughts on poker and the 49ers backfield: “We’ve got a full house … that’s a good hand, right?”
Watch some more James highlights to let it sink in that the Niners just added one of the best college football players in recent years.