The topic has been beaten to death lately. San Francisco, a team that's recently been synonymous with underwhelming wide receiver play, has a first-round draft choice who's not living up to expectations. Yes, the A.J. Jenkins saga...that's what I'm talking about.
The part that hasn't been discussed much is: What will it take for Jenkins to live up to his full potential?
First, the thought was that he needed some time and some reps. Let him learn the playbook, let him take snaps with Colin Kaepernick and get comfortable. Well, it's year two for Jenkins now, and all indications are that he's been getting his fair share of reps in training camp...but we're not seeing much from him, still.
Then there's the topic of how he's a "late-bloomer". Jenkins was pedestrian at Illinois during his first two seasons - so much so that he even considered transferring after his sophomore year. But then he started to really come on during his Junior season, putting up 56 catches, 746 yards, and 7 TDs, following-up with a Senior year of 90-catches, 1,276-yard, and 8-TDs.
But what was the key to that leap? As Eric Branch mentions in his recent article, newly hired offensive coordinator Paul Petrino decided that Jenkins needed a shot of swagger.
Now we know that Jim Harbaugh isn't afraid to pump a guy up, both behind the scenes as well as in the media. He famously said that Jenkins would become "an outstanding football player" after A.J. failed to make an impact in his rookie training camp, but is that enough?
Branch says that Petrino sat Jenkins down and told him that he believed the young receiver could become one of the best to come out of Illinois. According to Jenkins' former QB, Nathan Scheelhause, A.J. believed Petrino and proceeded to take a major step forward.
But was that all there was? Just some words of encouragement? I can't believe that's it. After all, as mentioned, Jim Harbaugh has already heaped praise on Jenkins, and that hasn't worked yet.
No, I think he needs more than just words. I think he needs to be treated like "The Man".
Jenkins had his best season as a senior at Illinois, and it's not surprising to me that he was considered the best WR on the roster coming into that year. He was looked at like the top dog, treated like such, the unquestioned starter and most productive player on the offense.
It's easy to have swagger when everyone loves you, praises you, is in awe of you.
I know, that usually comes from earning it, but the point is that Jenkins flourished with that level of confidence at his disposal. I don't think he's the type of guy who can manufacture confidence in himself. I don't think he responds to challenges, especially those that he must overcome BEFORE he get's the praise and star treatment.
Sounds totally entitled and ridiculous, right? I know it does...but something tells me that the only way to get Jenkins to play up to his potential is to assert him as a starter, send him out there down-after-down, and just keep pumping him up. Once he gets rolling, it'll be like a snowball (his confidence) and it picks up steam on it's own...but you have to start it.
I'm not saying I advocate this type of thing, especially for the 49ers, who are in a crucial window of opportunity to win a championship with impending free agents, aging stars, and potential salary cap issues ahead. But perhaps just during the preseason, during this time when the games don't matter, they should treat Jenkins like the number two wide receiver, send him out there with Colin Kaepernick, and treat him like "The Man".
Whether it be the 49ers or another team (should Jenkins in fact be released, traded, etc.), there will be lumps to take along the way. The key would be to keep telling A.J. that he's fine, it's OK, just get back out there, champ!
Think of it like a bad team that has to start their rookie QB. You know you're going 6-10, that he's gonna throw plenty of INTs, and it's not going to be pretty...but in the long-run you might just end up with a quality player who learned on the job, earned the trust of his teammates, and gained some confidence.
The good news is that Jenkins isn't a QB, so his mistakes wouldn't be as frequent simply due to the fact that he doesn't touch the ball on every play. I realize a fumble or dropped third-down conversion can change a game, but again, I'm talking about the preseason at this point. Should he end up on another team, maybe a much worse team with lower expectations, he might be able to play an entire season as the starter and finally get into his groove.
I hope that it doesn't come to the latter...but it might just be what A.J. needs in order to succeed in the NFL.