Jenkins another 1st-round sleeper for 49ers?

Jenkins lowest-rated prospect taken in first round

Moments after the 49ers made him the No. 30 overall selection of the 2012 NFL draft, A.J. Jenkins was left to say, over and over again, "I'm speechless. I'm out of words right now." That's how a lot of people felt after the 49ers made the WR out of Illinois their surprise first-round pick, a reach in the eyes of many. But that's what was being said about San Francisco's first-round pick last year.

And it seems that things ended up working out pretty well with Aldon Smith.

Will we be saying the same thing about Jenkins at this time next year?

Niners general manager Trent Baalke couldn't help but allude to the Smith comparison Thursday night when it was suggested the 49ers might have, well, taken Jenkins too high and not gotten appropriate value for their first-round selection.

After all, Jenkins was the lowest-rated prospect to be taken off the board in the first round, according to NFLDraftScout.com, which had the Illinois product rated as the 58th-best talent entering Thursday's first round.

Scout.com had Jenkins rated as only the 28th-best prospect at wide receiver entering the draft. As it was, Jenkins blew those rankings away by being the fourth wide receiver selected.

But for a first-round draft pick, which are expected to be players teams build around, Jenkins comes with some legitimate questions and concerns. Baalke admitted that, "if there's an area where A.J.'s got to get better in, it's called the weight room," and gaining separation off the line of scrimmage will be one of his primary concerns. Jenkins has a rather slight frame and bench-pressed 225 pounds just 12 times.

That makes Jenkins the general definition of a sleeper pick. But the Niners got it right with something of a sleeper pick in the first round last year, when they took Smith with the No. 7 overall pick when nobody thought the raw Missouri product would or should go that high.

All Smith did was develop quickly into a terror as a pass rusher, setting a San Francisco rookie record with 14 sacks while becoming an impact force on a defensive unit that developed into one of the NFL's best.

But No. 7 overall picks are expected to ultimately produce. It's a much more gray area with No. 30 picks, particularly those that play wide receiver. In 2004, the 49ers used the No. 31 pick on Rashuan Woods – a much more highly regarded prospect than Jenkins entering the draft – and Woods wound up being one of the biggest first-round busts in 49ers draft history.

Baalke insisted the 49ers got it right and got their man with Jenkins, despite the fact he's lightly regarded in some circles, and despite the fact several media members at 49ers headquarters were left scrambling for information on Jenkins after he'd been picked because they simply hadn't heard much about the guy, or in some cases didn't even know he was.

"I think if you follow this story for a little while longer over the course of the next few days, you're going to find that there were a lot more people that liked A.J. than just the San Francisco 49ers," Baalke said. "And he would've gone a lot sooner tomorrow (in Friday's second and third rounds) than a lot of people may think."

So why do Baalke and the 49ers think this? They certainly have their list of reasons.

The Niners closely watched the fleet-footed wideout during his breakout senior season, one of the best in Illinois history, when Jenkins had 90 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns.

But it was after putting up those numbers that the 6-foot, 192-pound product apparently began soaring up San Francisco's draft board.

Niners personnel studied Jenkins during the week of the East-West Shrine Game, where Baalke said Jenkins had a "great performance." That earned Jenkins a late invitation to the Senior Bowl, the biggest and most prestigious of all the postseason college all-star games, where Baalke said the wideout also competed very well among the nation's best NFL prospects.

Jenkins also impressed at the NFL Combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.31 seconds, according to information provided to the 49ers. He impressed yet again after the team brought Jenkins to the Bay Area for a pre-draft visit.

So even though the Niners added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to their receiver corps in free agency and re-signed speedy Ted Ginn and veteran Brett Swain to a group that includes holdovers Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams, San Francisco took a flyer on a guy that can fly and potentially make their passing game more explosive.

"We like the talent," Baalke said. "He's a guy that fits our system very well, from a trait standpoint, from a skills standpoint, and has all the off-the-field intangibles that we're looking for as well. Feel he's going to be a great fit in the locker room, a great addition to the offense."

So what makes Jenkins a better fit than bigger, more heralded and more polished receiver prospects such as LSU's Reuben Randle, Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, all of whom fell out of the first round and will still be available when the draft resumes Friday?

"We feel that this is a multi-aligned guy, a guy that can line up at any of those three (receiver) spots and have success in our system," Baalke said. "It creates a lot of versatility within the position group."

And versatility, bottom line, is what sold the Niners on Jenkins, a scholar athlete who's "just a class guy, a class act," Baalke said.

"We liked the mindset that he has," Baalke continued. "We liked his team-first mentality, just how he carried himself. Expect him to come in here, represent himself, represent this team, represent our community at a very high level. But, we just like the versatility. We liked the traits. We liked the character. There was not much that you didn't like. There was a lot to like, and that's why he's a 49er."

And that's why he's a 49er sooner than many would have expected, including even Jenkins, who said he was watching the draft Thursday "not really expecting to get called tonight, honestly."

But Jenkins got that call from the 49ers, and now it's up to him to show that it was the right call for the team, just as Smith did a year before him.

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