A.J. Jenkins SF 49ers OTAsA.J. Jenkins’ career didn’t get off to a good start. It’s not breaking news by any stretch of the imagination, but with Michael Crabtree’s Achilles tear, it’s probably weighing heavily on the minds of 49ers fans right now. Jenkins slow start wouldn’t have been a big deal in 2012 had Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams stayed healthy; in fact, Jenkins’ slow start wouldn’t have been a start at all had the two injuries not occurred. But history is history, and for the willing participant, the first chapter for the wide receiver is an extremely suitable punching bag.

You’ll have to forgive me for waxing optimistic here, but it seems to me Trent Baalke deserves a little leeway. The LOL KNBR Callers started getting after the 49ers midway through their 2012 season for the first-round pick — even before he’d been activated to play in a game.

“Why hasn’t he played yet? Look at the other rookies helping other teams! I don’t care how deep this team is! Saaa-wing and a miss, Baalke!” 

A few hosts even got in the mix, including one who proclaimed to watch more Big Ten football than anyone else in the Bay Area while never noticing Jenkins once. Surprising, considering the wide receiver went off for 6 catches, 182 yards and two touchdowns against his team.

Once thrust into action, the game appeared too fast for Jenkins. The lack of production from the rookie became a mainstay for anybody looking for flaws in the 49ers, while the offense still thrived in spite of it. The numbers (or lack thereof) have been discussed ad nauseum. Jenkins did nothing.

But the 2012 season is in the past, and things aren’t getting any easier for the wide receiver. Crabtree’s injury means Anquan Boldin will be stepping in and forcing a three-way competition for the second wideout spot between Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette and rookie Quinton Patton.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Lockette or Patton beat him out, and it wouldn’t mean Jenkins’ career is a bust by any means.

Let’s take a look at Jenkins’ college numbers, similar to my analysis of Colin Kaepernick:

2008: Freshman year

Jenkins played in eight games, two of which sported zeroes across the board. His best performance was in a 27-17 win over Minnesota — he hauled in three catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns. It accounted for a large portion of his season stat line, which ended up an underwhelming 11 catches, 287 yards and three scores.

2009: Sophomore year

Another disappointing season for the wide receiver. He played in only five games, collecting 10 catches for 123 yards and one touchdown. His best performance was against Indiana, a four-catch, 77-yard outburst featuring his only score.

2010: Junior year

Here’s where things started looking up. Jenkins played in all 13 of the Illini’s games, including their 38-14 win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. He finished the season with 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. For those keeping track, he more than doubled his previous two years’ production in terms of catches and touchdowns, while nearly doubling his total yardage.

2011: Senior year

This was by far Jenkins’ best season, and it included the drubbing of a KNBR host’s alma mater I mentioned earlier. When all was said and done, the wide receiver played in all of Illinois’s 13 games, including their 20-14 win over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. He caught 90 passes for 1276 yards and eight touchdowns.

Jenkins appears to be a bit of a slow learner, but a prolific receiver once he fully catches on. Trends don’t always pan out on a perfect loop, and the 49ers certainly hope it’s true now. It would be better for Jenkins to make more of a contribution in his sophomore season as a 49er than he did as a sophomore at Illionis. After all, depth at wide receiver remains a big question mark, but if his professional career unfolds anything like his collegiate career did, he may be due for another slow season.

Still, there’s a good chance he will eventually figure it out. If/when he does, Jenkins will be a formidable weapon for the 49ers’ offense.