In his five previous drafts as the man in charge with the 49ers, Trent Baalke has typically found players with first round picks that have stepped in and played significant roles in their rookie seasons.
After all, the 49ers have landed Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati, Aldon Smith, Eric Reid and last year's starting nickel back Jimmie Ward. So they've enjoyed a good percentage of hits with their first round picks under Baalke.
“Minus one,” Baalke pointed out last month. “You’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself in this business, don’t you?”
That one is wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, chosen with the 30th pick in the 2012 draft. Jenkins appeared overmatched from the beginning, and never caught a pass in his one-year 49ers career.
“You learn from everything you do in this business,” Baalke said. “The decision that you make, sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. And when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. You don’t push that off on anybody else. The responsibility falls on my shoulders to make those decisions.”
Before Jenkins’ second season, the 49ers gave up on him. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for receiver Jonathan Baldwin, another first round disappointment. Jenkins caught 17 passes for 223 yards in two seasons with Kansas City. He was released this offseason. Jenkins has yet to find a new team and may never play in the league again.
The 49ers selected Jenkins, who exhibited good speed but little physicality or toughness, ahead of Alshon Jeffery. The Chicago Bears chose Jeffery 12 spots after Jenkins. In the past two seasons, Jeffery has 174 receptions for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“With that situation, it didn’t end up good,” Baalke said of the Jenkins selection. “It ended up being a bad decision. I think what you learn from is that to consistently stay with your philosophy. So much of what we do is based on scheme and fits. We’ve always said that there are certain characteristics we look for in players. Sometimes you make exceptions. When you make an exception, what do you learn from those exceptions?
“A.J. was an awfully talented young man. Why didn’t it work? There are always reasons why things didn’t work. But it wasn’t due to anybody not giving it their all. I think A.J. gave it his all. I think the coaches gave it their all. It just didn’t work, and you move on.”
After the 49ers took Michael Crabtree with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 Scot McCloughan-engineered draft, Jenkins is the only wide receiver the 49ers have chosen in the top three rounds while Baalke has been at the controls.
In essence, the 49ers have mostly taken a pass on the top group of the wide receivers in recent drafts.
Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington were chosen in the fourth rounds in 2013 and ’14, respectively. Both players remain on the 49ers’ roster. Kyle Williams was a sixth-round pick in 2010. He was released in the middle of his fourth season. Ronald Johnson was a sixth-round pick in 2011, and he never spent a day on the team’s 53-man roster and is now in the Canadian Football League.
With a deep class of wideouts giving the 49ers options with at least their top three picks, Baalke can’t just check down to another position in this year’s draft. The 49ers must connect at a position at which they have lacked top young talent for a long time.