James found end zone 58 times in 3 Oregon seasons
In the volatile game of draft poker, Trent Baalke and the 49ers are putting their cards on the table and stacking the deck on offense with their top picks. After getting within a game of the Super Bowl last season, the Niners are serious about upgrading their talent on that side of the ball, even if it means making some surprise choices at positions where they already appear considerably stocked.
“It’s like poker, right?” Baalke, the team’s general manager, said Friday night after the 49ers took something of a gamble with their selections on the first two days of the 2012 NFL draft.
“It’s a full house,” Baalke continued after adding speedsters LaMichael James and A.J. Jenkins at running back and wide receivers, respectively, positions where the 49ers have now created a logjam of competition with capable talents. “In poker, a full house is a good hand, right?”
Yes, it is. And the 49ers are drawing to a couple of them with their bold moves so far during the college lottery.
Teamed with Baalke, coach Jim Harbaugh regularly goes against the grain, never concerned if he’s popular or trendy in the process. And the reigning NFL coach of the year’s team, has already pulled off a pair of stunning picks in the draft that few – if any – saw coming.
A day after the defending NFC West champions selected Illinois wide receiver Jenkins at No. 30 in the first round, the 49ers came back and took Oregon running back James 61st overall in the second to join an already jammed offensive backfield.
Good thing the creative Harbaugh loves competition all over the field. He’s going to get it, all right.
And now the Niners, through the first two days of the draft and free agency, have significantly upgraded the talent of an offensive unit that was lackluster last season compared to their outstanding defense and strong special teams.
Harbaugh suddenly will have some big decisions to make come training camp considering he must decide how to divvy up the touches between James, three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore, newly-signed Brandon Jacobs and explosive second-year player Kendall Hunter, not to mention Anthony Dixon, who was the NFL’s leading preseason rusher two seasons ago as a rookie.
That’s a lot of proven talent to have competing at one position, with a new home-run hitter such as James adding even more to the mix.
“Welcome to the squad,” tweeted Dixon, who might wind up an odd man out. Harbaugh said Friday evening that the 49ers might keep five running backs, and there’s also young fullback Bruce Miller and newcomer veteran Rock Cartwright competing for those spots.
But that’s the way the 49ers do business these days, looking for upgrades and adding to the competition at every corner of the roster.
Who would expect anything less than an element of surprise from this now-surging franchise as it chases another Super Bowl? It’s already been a dramatic offseason in which the Niners made a three-year offer to quarterback Alex Smith, then pursued now-Broncos QB Peyton Manning before ultimately sticking with Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick who Harbaugh again on Friday said is entrenched as San Francisco’s starter behind center.
But even Smith has more competition this year after the Niners brought in free-agent veteran Josh Johnson, who became a college star in Harbaugh’s system at the University of San Francisco.
Late in the day, near the end of the third round, San Francisco traded its 92nd pick to the Colts for Indianapolis’ spot at No.97 early in Saturday’s fourth round while receiving Indianapolis’ fifth-round selection in 2013.
James is confident he can contribute in the return game and joked perhaps even block a field goal.
“I haven’t blocked any yet, but I will. Coming soon, I’m going to block some,” he said from his home in Texas. “I know who Kendall Hunter is. He’s from East Texas too, so I know exactly who he is. But I like Brandon Jacobs. He’s a good running back and so is Frank Gore. I look up to him. I think he’s an awesome running back. I think he’s one of the best running backs in the league. So, if I have to sit behind him and learn, it’s just a good opportunity for me to get better.”
Harbaugh and Baalke love Jenkins’ versatility, too.
Jenkins got called “E.T.” as a teen for his conspicuously large hands and long fingers. He didn’t mind then, and now he relishes the nickname. He could palm a basketball by age 12, and those hands have served him well ever since.
On Friday, when the Niners formally introduced their top pick, Jenkins juggled a football for photographers and spun it on the ground right over the large SF at the 50-yard line of one of the team’s practice fields.
As for the references to the sci-fi movie hit, “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial,” Jenkins said, “I don’t mind, I don’t care, it’s cool.”
Jenkins is on a cross-country joy ride after flying into the Bay Area from his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.
Jenkins beamed while holding up his new red No. 17 Niners jersey. When asked why that number after wearing No. 8, he quipped, “Seven plus one is eight.”
The talented wideout made quite an impression on Day 1 for more than his large hands. He was spiffy from head to toe in a dark pinstripe suit, lavender button-up dress shirt and matching diamond-patterned tie, accessorized by a pair of sparkly diamond studs in his ears.
“This is tailored. I didn’t buy it, it was free, you know?” Jenkins said, chuckling.
Jenkins flew to San Francisco on a 6 a.m. flight Friday, and had yet to sleep at all when he arrived at team headquarters for a day he had been waiting for all his life. He watched a movie on the plane “still with jitters in my stomach,” then immediately started talking football with his new teammates and coaches. He spoke with fellow receiver and return man Ted Ginn Jr. among others.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Jenkins – those hands measure 9½ inches thumb to pinkie – 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.
James also was a prolific playmaker at Oregon, where he put up phenomenal numbers the past three seasons as one of the nation’s leading rushers. James had consecutive seasons of 1,546, 1,731 and last year 1,805 rushing yards while averaging 6.6 yards per carry during his college career.
He also caught 51 passes out of the backfield and occasionally returned kicks. James averaged 160.24 all-purpose yards and scored 58 touchdowns in his 37 college games before leaving Oregon after his All-American junior season.
“The one thing you notice about him is he’s a playmaker,” Baalke said. “He’s done it against the very best in college football on a consistent basis, which is hard to do. He’s a guy that’s been able to run between the tackles, get on the edges, make plays consistently whether it’s coming out of the backfield as a receiver or running the football inside or outside. When you get the ball in his hands, he can make plays.”
And now the 49ers have two more young talents that can do that as they work to add firepower to their offense and take it to the next level.
“I think you’re always looking to get more explosive on offense,” Baalke said. “Part of the game is scoring touchdowns. This isn’t an indictment on the players that we had. This was an opportunity to add a very good football player to the 49ers and create more competition. What we’ve tried to do is add speed and explosiveness to this offense, to this football team, and with these two picks we’ve done that.”