Jim Harbaugh believes in A.J. Jenkins, no matter what the nattering nabobs say. (AP)
The San Francisco 49ers surprised a lot of pundits when they selected Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, especially when there was still talent like Appalachian State's Brian Quick, LSU's Rueben Randle, Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill and Stanford's Coby Fleener still on the board. Jenkins was productive in college, but most scouting services didn't give him with a first-round grade, and NFLDraftScout.com may have put the concerns best when it said Jenkins "doesn't appear to have the strength or natural speed to hold up on the outside as a pro, but could develop into a solid No. 3 or 4 for a team if he becomes more disciplined as a route-runner and devotes himself to the game of football."
Early reports from minicamps were less than compelling. From the start, those at 49ers practices observed Jenkins struggle in nearly every aspect of the NFL challenge. He showed up out of shape to his first minicamp, had issues holding up through more advanced offensive drills as time went on, and looked nothing like a first-round pick. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, however, had nothing but positives for the kid, even as all reports were negative.
"He's very into it, very gung-ho," Harbaugh told the media in mid-June. "Very fast — fast, fast. Excellent hands. He's got the ability to get in and out of cuts with his foot speed and turn over. He doesn't get stuck at the top of routes, he's able to get out of those cuts. He's right on track. A.J. Jenkins is going to be just fine."
Now that training camp has started and Jenkins appears to be getting with the program -- according to some recent reports -- Harbaugh couldn't wait to take a shot at the media, which he seems to enjoy targeting more than any receiver during his 15-year term as an NFL quarterback.
"A.J Jenkins was an outstanding football player when he got here. His progress has been very, very good, and exceeded expectations.
"For those -- the scribes, pundits, so-called experts -- who have gone so far as to say that he's going to be a bust, should just stop. I recommend that because they're making themselves look more clueless than they already did.
"I'll go on record: A.J. is going to be an outstanding football player. So far in camp and what he's done in the offseason has led us to believe nothing but he'll be an outstanding football player in the National Football League."
When asked if he expected Jenkins to make an impact right away, Harbaugh let it fly just a bit more.
"It's been consistent, steady improvement every time he's come out here on the field or when we've been in a meeting. And it was already outstanding to begin with. If you recall the first day he was here at the rookie minicamp, I said, 'This is the best group of young receivers that I've ever been a part of in football, as a player or a coach.' It was good to start with and it's been better and better each day.
"And, yeah, I'm going to keep track of some of these names of so-called experts who were making these comments. And there's going to be an 'I told you so.' I foresee that happening."
Fair enough, but does that mean that the Bay Area media get to take open shots at Harbaugh's football acumen whenever Jenkins has a bad game? Does Harbaugh want to set that bar? The coach is correct when he says that it's tough to determine much from early practices, but when a first-round pick shows up in rough shape, it's a legitimate story, and I didn't see many local reports taking personal shots at the rookie. For better or worse, football beat writers are hired, trained and paid to make too much out of practice events because their readers love any bit of football news.
And as Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee points out, this just puts the focus more on Jenkins than was already there before. Perhaps that was the idea all along, and Harbaugh is using the media to put the pressure on his top rookie. Or, perhaps the coach has developed a severe case of rabbit ears when it comes to the media (this isn't the first time he's gone out of his way to take unsolicited shots in the last few months), and we'll see where that takes us through the 2012 season.
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