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Chiefs receiver A.J. Jenkins trying to make most of this chance

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 9:39 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, at 11:18 a.m.

The way Chiefs receiver A.J. Jenkins remembers it, on the day the San Francisco 49ers officially gave up on him, it was like something out of a television show — HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” in particular.

“I was walking in,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t even get a chance to go to the locker room. I walked through the door and a (49ers employee) was waiting for me at the door. He walked me to the GM’s office and he sat me down.”

This was a late August morning, only three weeks before this season, and Jenkins remembers being told he was traded to the Chiefs, who were sending over Jonathan Baldwin, another first-round receiver who wasn’t working out.

Jenkins knew his first year with the 49ers had not gone well — he appeared in just three games and became the first healthy first-round receiver since Clyde Duncan in nearly 30 years to not catch a pass —but the news still took him by surprise.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious?’ ” Jenkins said. “But it kind of stung me because I didn’t wake up expecting to be on a flight in three hours.”

Now, Jenkins — who was taken 30th overall in the 2012 NFL Draft by the 49ers after catching 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior at Illinois — is in a fight to avoid being labeled a first-round bust like Duncan, who was drafted 17th overall in 1984 by St. Louis and was out of the league after two years.

Jenkins is getting his chance. When starting receiver Donnie Avery hurt his shoulder Sunday against the Titans, it was Jenkins who gobbled up most of his snaps. And with Avery only a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice, Jenkins could soon get another chance to show what he can do.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid understands Jenkins has been put in a tough position, at least when comes to making an instant impact.

“These guys that came in a little bit later in the picture here, that’s not an easy thing,” Reid said. “But he’s a smart guy.”

One who isn’t letting the pressure get to him.

“Nobody going to put more pressure on me but myself,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been through the lowest of the lows, so there’s nothing the media can put on my shoulders that I can’t handle.”

The physical ability has always been there.

Jenkins posted a 4.39 40-yard dash and a 38.5-inch vertical leap at the 2012 NFL combine, and draft analyst Mike Mayock called him “a vertical threat who gets in and out of his breaks smoothly” and “a good football player.”

Jenkins’ NFL.com draft profile also lauded his willingness to go over the middle, something he took pride in at Illinois.

“You can look at my college film,” said the 6-foot Jenkins. “That’s why I’m in the NFL, honestly. I ran a lot of shallow crosses when I was at Illinois. I’m about 190 (pounds), but it’s not about the size, it’s about the heart.”

Jenkins’ draft profile also mentioned his seeming tendency to take plays off on occasion and said he had a hard time beating press coverage at times. San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke said publicly that Jenkins needs to improve his strength.

But Jenkins, who logged a season-high 29 of the Chiefs’ 70 offensive snaps Sunday against the Titans, said he received good feedback from the coaching staff after the game, particularly when it came to his blocking.

“(There’s) a couple of plays I wish I would have had back,” Jenkins said. “But they (the coaches) think I played well. They think I attacked, as far as blocking and putting my head in there pretty good.”

Still, Jenkins’ job is to catch the ball, and for whatever reason, he finished the game with zero catches on zero targets. But for a man who sat on the bench last season for the first time in his football life, it was fun getting a chance to prove what he can do in an actual game.

“People always say leave the past as the past,” Jenkins said. “But you’ve got to know where you came from. I feel like life is all about proving things, proving people wrong.

“Not saying they (San Francisco) didn’t believe in me or what not. It just didn’t work, whatever the situation was, whether it was the team or scheme or whatever.”

When asked if there was anything in particular that held him back in San Francisco, Jenkins just chuckled.

“That’s a good question,” he said.

Jenkins fought off the urge to make excuses about his 49ers tenure — “I can take this question a lot of different ways,” he said with a smile ― but first and foremost, he cited the receivers that were ahead of him on the depth chart.

“Honestly, that team was pretty much set in stone before I got there, I think,” Jenkins said. “When I got there, (they had) Randy Moss, Ted Ginn, (Michael) Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Vernon Davis, all these guys who already proven. And you’ve got me coming in as a young guy trying to catch up when they’re already at the finish line and know what’s going on.

“So I’m around these great players and I’m trying, you know, and it makes me look like I’m bad. It’s like, a lot of things people don’t really like understand. But I don’t really expect them to.”

San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has repeatedly declined to address Jenkins’ struggles with the 49ers. But according to the San Jose Mercury News, Davis, after gushing about Jenkins’ potential, also suggested he should “take his approach toward the game up a notch.”

Jenkins said learning the play calls with the 49ers and now the Chiefs has been an adjustment, as it is for any young player. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who spent last year with Jenkins in San Francisco, agreed that it’s not easy.

“At the receiver position, you kind of have to know all those spots because all those guys get moved around,” Smith said.

Plus, Jenkins said, when he was at Illinois, the quarterback could say one word and everybody knew what they were supposed to do. In the NFL, quarterbacks issue longer play calls in the huddle that essentially spell out everyone’s assignment.

“Here,” Jenkins said, “you’ve got to make sure you’re tuned in.”

Especially in San Francisco, where Jenkins said they often called two plays in the huddle.

“You’ve got to know what you’ve got to do on both plays,” Jenkins said. “(The quarterback) can say ‘Kill, kill, kill,’ and then go on to the next play.”

There’s also that not-so-small matter of understanding coverage, which can sometimes alter a receiver’s route, depending on the play call.

“It’s all about you learning on the run,” Jenkins said. “It’s how it is.”

The good news for Jenkins is that he feels he’s beginning to understand Reid’s scheme.

“I’m pretty comfortable with the playbook and everything,” Jenkins said. “I’m, like, 90 percent there.”

With that, Jenkins nods and looks down at his watch. He has a meeting in 10 minutes with Chiefs receivers coach David Culley, who Jenkins said has consistently worked with him to help him get up to speed.

“I meet with him in the morning and meet with him during lunch,” Jenkins said. “Just because I’m new to the system, I’m constantly in the playbook. Because when the time comes, it won’t be waiting for you to be ready or not.”

In five games with the Chiefs, Jenkins has already received far more playing time (58 offensive snaps) than he ever did in San Francisco, where he logged just 35 last season.

But Jenkins, who acknowledged that he needs to improve in every facet of the game thinks he learned a lot in 2012, when he spent most of the season running on the scout team against the 49ers’ imposing defense.

“It was humbling, but it can also help you with your game because I was constantly going against Carlos Rogers, Dashon Goldson and (Donte) Whitner and Tarell Brown,” Jenkins said. “Imagine running some shallow crosses with Pat Willis and (NaVorro) Bowman sitting right there. It wasn’t live (contact), but just imagine them crossing my face. Those are some big dudes, and trust me, the way they practice is the way they play.”

While Jenkins has yet to make an impact with the Chiefs — he has caught just one pass for 6 yards — there have been small signs of progress, which he has relished. After his first career reception in a Thursday night duel against Philadelphia a few weeks ago, the television cameras caught him grinning broadly, something his friends and family gleefully told him afterward.

“They said I was cheesing,” Jenkins said.

He hopes more moments like that lie ahead of him.

“Quite honestly, you’ve got to walk around with a chip on shoulder, you know?,” Jenkins said. “When that time comes, I want to have that last laugh.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email totpaylor@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.

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