The 49ers added to their wide receiver depth in the 2020 draft in the seventh round at pick 217 when they added Jauan Jennings from the University of Tennessee. The appeal of Jennings is easy to see as the 49ers continue to prioritize a ball-control offense with receivers who can create yards after the catch. Presumably, receivers Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor will also be fully healthy and ready to participate in the preseason.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan was surprised that Jennings fell to the seventh round. But coming in as the seventh-round pick, Shanahan did stress he’s going to have to work harder than most to prove himself and earn a roster spot. I think he will, though, simply for the fact that he adds what Shanahan currently values in the receiver group right now: the ability to create yards after the catch.
Of the pick, Shanahan stated that he was surprised they got him where they did but explained what they loved about his tape:
“When you watch this tape, you know a lot of people in this League are going to love him. He was one of our most favorite guys to watch. He’s a bulldog. He usually plays in the slot. I feel like he could probably play linebacker if he wants. He’s willing to fight everybody out there. He fights for yards. He makes plays, and there’s a mindset to that guy that you don’t have to talk to him to hear about.”
But coming in as the seventh-round pick, Shanahan did stress he’s going to have to work harder than most to prove himself and earn a roster spot. I think he will, though, simply for the fact that he adds what Shanahan currently values in the receiver group right now: the ability to create yards after the catch.
Measurables and stats
In 2019, Jennings was nearly a 1000 yard receiver on just 59 receptions. He totaled 969 yards and eight touchdowns, at 16.4 yards per reception.
He did all that in his senior season while not being a blazing fast or super athletic receiver. He ran his 40 time in the 4.7s and didn’t particularly standout at all at the combine, which probably contributed to his fall down the board to the seventh round.
In fact, his measurables do not match the receiver’s profile who put up those kinds of numbers. This made his tape even more intriguing, and it’s easy to see why Shanahan went the route he did with Jennings even though he could’ve easily been an early day three pick in the 4th or 5th round, which slightly better testing numbers would’ve done for him.
How play strength and balance/control contribute to yards after the catch
The first thing that sticks in Jennings tape is his play strength. He comes in at 6-foot-3-inches and 215 pounds and will likely play most of his snaps in the slot. His size alone will benefit him well. According to Pro Football Focus, Jennings led all receivers in the nation in broken tackles with 30.
Here against Georgia, Jennings is running a quick out to the flat. There’s nothing super technical about what he does here on the route he’s running. He won’t give you a fancy release, just an old fashioned hard-nosed run after the catch. Three Georgia defenders pursue him at the catch point, and nearly any other receiver would go down or not be able to get the yards after the catch here that he gets.
He plants his foot in the ground as the defenders converge on him and cut back inside. He makes two defenders miss and bowls through the would-be tackler at the end of the play, removing any doubts that he might avoid contact.
The best example of Jennings’s play strength came against South Carolina when he rumbled for a 48-yard touchdown reception and broke two tackles in the process where defenders seemingly bounced off him. The play shows his superior balance and strength despite not having elite athletic traits. This could be an issue for opposing defenses.
Jennings is the number two in a wing 3x1 formation to the left. He’s running a deep in-breaking route that Shanahan calls a “basic” route. South Carolina is in a cover-3 defense, and the linebacker over the trips tries to reroute Jennings before dropping to the flat.
The bump doesn’t do much, though, as Jennings can still get his depth on time. Because he ran more vertical than across, the linebacker responsible for #3 across (3 up is 3) initially gets lost before picking him, but by that point, it is too late.
Jennings catches the pass in the open field, and it is here where he does his best work. As he races to the goal line, two defenders give it their best shot but come up short as they both bounce off of him as he runs through their contact.
He initially stumbles but recovers from the first contact and not a moment too soon. The second defender tries to knock him off balance from behind, but he just stumbles forward and recovers again before crossing the goal line.
Balance and control
Jennings’s play strength enables him to gain yards after the catch, and the combination of the two is going to serve him well in Shanahan’s offense.
His strength also contributes to his balance and control after the catch, as the above play against South Carolina shows. But in the play above, he can also make moves in much tighter quarters that enable him to get more yards. In the clip above against Florida, he’s running a quick hitch or stop route. He catches the pass and races upfield.
He won’t win with speed, but with his frame is rolling downhill, it’s tough to stop. He makes a few quick cuts and a nice spin move, stays in control, and has the awareness to keep running without hesitation or care for where the defenders are. At the end of the run, he still bowls through a couple of defenders en route to a 27 yard gain.
In contested situations, it pays to have a receiver who can go over the middle and make difficult adjustments on imperfect passes.
Here against Georgia State, Jennings runs a quick slant over the middle, something Shanahan calls a “now” slant, a quick two steps and cross the defender’s face no matter what. Jennings gets open with a quick jab to the outside on a defender who already had outside leverage and, in two quick steps, is cutting inside on the slant. The move created just enough separation for him to get open.
This is where not having any speed can hurt a receiver. The defender recovers enough to get into Jennings’s catch radius and break up the pass. The pass is high and behind, and Jennings, who didn’t test well with his vertical jump, makes a difficult adjustment and goes up and snags the pass out of the air with the defender in his face. His body control and awareness more than makeup for any lack of speed.
In another clip here against Missouri, his balance and strength help him ward off defenders in what looks initially like he’s going to be tackled as he tries to turn upfield. He plants his foot and jukes two defenders, gets hit and stays upright as he fights to get into the end zone.
How will Jennings be used in Shanahan’s offense?
Since he doesn’t have the speed to take the top off of opposing defenses, he’ll more than likely see most of his usage in the slot in what’s termed the “big slot.” The big slot is someone who can lineup in the slot and creates mismatches for opposing defenses.
While he lacks the speed to expose slower linebackers and safeties, he gives the quarterback a big reliable target across the middle on crossing routes and down the seam where he can use his body to shield the ball from the defender and make contested catches.
On deep crossing routes in the clips above, you can see how he can turn receptions into big gains if he has a little bit of space to work with. He doesn’t really waste any movement or affect the timing of throws with his speed, and he can make difficult adjustments on imperfect throws and still accumulate yards after the catch. And at the risk of repeating myself, he is tough to tackle.
He also can run seam routes or slot fades where he can catch the ball in traffic due to his ability to shield the pass from defenders. He excels here due to his size and strength because he cannot create space with his lack of speed.
On the touchdown throw in the clip above, the defender tries to collision him 10 yards downfield, but this was a mistake since Jennings plants and ran right by him. His precise cuts and jab steps are fluid enough to keep him engaged in the route long enough to get open.
On the slot fade, he jabs steps and fades out while swatting away the defender’s collision and creates enough separation to catch the pass. On the hash vertical in the last clip, he makes a difficult adjustment on the throw and holds on between a triangle of defenders as he takes a hit.
One way slower receivers create space is in how they sell the route with their movements. Here, Jennings is running a juke route, a route common in most NFL offenses, especially in Shanahan’s.
On the juke, Jennings pushes upfield to a depth of about five yards, sits briefly in front of the defender, then immediately cuts back inside as the defender works to get outside leverage. As Jennings sits, he throws his hands up as a decoy like the pass is coming to him. As the defender works out, he finds space inside where he catches the pass and turns upfield.
We could also see Jennings run the occasional blaze out route that Shanahan reserves usually for faster receivers. Still, Jennings can sell the vertical stem and steps toward the post before cutting out. His nuance creates the separation in route running rather than all-out speed.
Jennings should theoretically make the squad in the fall with the final cuts due to the added versatility he brings to the slot role, his toughness and strength, and his ability to create yards after the catch. I firmly believe that he would’ve gone late on day one or early on day two of the draft if he was two-tenths of a second faster than he was at the combine.
As it is, coming in as a seventh-round pick already leaves him at a disadvantage, but that motivation should fuel him going into what remaining program the team will have this summer due to the cancellations of team activities. He certainly possesses most of the necessary traits to thrive and could very well likely make the 49ers offense that much more dynamic.