The San Francisco 49ers are one of the NFL's model organizations, but even the best front offices boot it from time to time. General manager Trent Baalke and head coach Jim Harbaugh didn't get a single start from anyone in their 2012 draft class last year, and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins was the biggest disappointment of all. The Illinois product, taken with the 30th overall selection in the draft, played in just three games and didn't register a single catch. The 49ers needed Jenkins to step up in his second season and be a reliable deep receiver for Colin Kaepernick, but that wasn't happening -- through two preseason games, Jenkins had one catch on five targets. The other four targets netted the 49ers two interceptions and a lost fumble.
There had been rumors that the 49ers were ready to move on, possibly cutting Jenkins outright -- a nearly unprecedented move for a second-year first-round pick. Instead, per multiple reports, Baalke and Harbaugh have disposed of Jenkins in a trade to the Kansas City Chiefs. In return, the 49ers will get receiver Jonathan Baldwin, another disappointing first-round wideout.
“We would like to thank A.J. for his efforts as a member of the 49ers and wish him all the best with the Kansas City Chiefs,” Baalke said in a statement released by the team Monday morning. “We are pleased to add Jonathan to our team and look forward to incorporating him into our offense. Both players have been presented a great opportunity for a new beginning with their respective teams.”
When some tried to suggest last season that Jenkins wasn't living up to his draft stock, Harbaugh was not amused.
"A.J Jenkins was an outstanding football player when he got here," the coach said in July of 2012 after Jenkins appeared to be overwhelmed by the high workload of an NFL system. "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 off-season has led us to believe nothing but he'll be an outstanding football player in the National Football League.
"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."
On Monday, Harbaugh back-tracked a bit, and tried to explain how Jenkins could redeem himself in a general sense.
"I’ll just speak from personal experience," he said. "I was rejected by a team, sent to another team and then with the next team my signature years came. So it can be a real positive and that’s what everybody hopes for in this situation. A.J. is a very talented player. He has never been an issue or a problem as a teammate. He competes. He works very hard and there’s no reason that both these guys can’t end up having a great career. Another example -- I won’t use myself but we’ll use the great Cris Carter. Receiver in Philadelphia, Buddy Ryan sent him to Minnesota and then a Hall of Fame career ensued. Those are opportunities that both of these young men have, and I think they definitely have the ability and license to get that done.”
Harbaugh played quarterback for the Chicago Bears from 1987 through 1993, but his best seasons came with the Indianapolis Colts from 1994 through 1997. The 1995 Colts came within a couple plays of Super Bowl XXX, but lost the AFC title game to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As for Baldwin, he was taken 26th overall by the Chiefs in the 2011 draft by ex-GM Scott Pioli, and his two years in the NFL have been far from spectacular. He's caught just 41 passes for 579 yards and two touchdowns in those two seasons, often struggling with ball security and route accuracy. Those issues have continued through the new regime of head coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, and Reid recently said that he was running out of patience.
“We gave him the opportunity this week, and you have to catch the football,” Reid told ESPN.com. “That’s how it works, and he knows that and I know that. When we give you an opportunity, you have to make sure you take advantage of the opportunity … He needs to keep playing, and [when] given the opportunity, he needs to take advantage of it.”
Harbaugh, as is his wont, was more succinct when asked about Jenkins' future with the franchise on Sunday.
"Things factor in, but it’s long-standing," he said. "Football hasn’t changed since its inception. Best players make the team.”Jon Baldwin