The 49ers got their man Thursday night.
He just wasn’t a man most NFL Draft observers thought was worth taking in the first round.
So, after making one of the most surprising picks in Round 1, the Niners spent the rest of the evening: a) listening to critics pummel their choice and b) explaining why they took Illinois' A.J. Jenkins with the 30th overall selection when many believed Jenkins was a second-round pick at best.
When the 49ers’ pick came around, Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill was still available. So were wide receivers Rueben Randle of LSU, Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina, Midwestern State guard Amini Silatolu and Stanford tight end Coby Fleener.
All had been rated higher than Jenkins by many and seemed more likely to fit the 49ers’ needs.
Yet the Niners said Jenkins was their man all along.
Last week, General Manager Trent Baalke had said he was certain his prize would still be waiting at the 30th spot, and Thursday, coach Jim Harbaugh said Baalke had been so confident that he had written Jenkins’ name on a piece of paper and put it in a sealed envelope hours before the draft and predicted the former Illini standout would be their choice.
Clearly, Baalke, his scouting staff and Harbaugh were ecstatic about drafting Jenkins.
Immediately, however, the pick was called “a reach.” Better players were available, said critics.
Wrote Rob Rang of CBS Sports: "There wasn't a bigger reach in the first round of the 2012 draft than the one the 49ers made with Jenkins, our No. 58 rated prospect. The Illini receiver enjoyed a spectacular senior campaign and really worked out extraordinarily well, but frankly I didn't see this type of explosiveness throughout his career. Considering how effective the 49ers were with their 2011 draft picks, they have earned the benefit of the doubt, but for a team with some concerns, adding a wideout who may start the season only fourth or fifth on the depth chart was a stunner."
Even Jenkins told reporters he was “not expecting to get called tonight.”
“I had no idea I was going to go this early,” Jenkins said.
With a team that was 13-3 last season, and with few glaring holes, Baalke had the luxury of being able to take the best player available with pick No. 30. He didn’t have to fill the vacant right guard position. He didn’t have to add to wide receiver depth. He didn’t have to select another cornerback for depth in the secondary.
So we have to believe that Jenkins stood out to him just as Aldon Smith stood out to him last year when Baalke surprised draft watchers by taking him seventh overall. Smith, it turned out, was worth it. Jenkins, it turns out, was Baalke’s secret crush, the guy he hoped to get all along.
“If you like the player, take him,” he told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.
Baalke has a good track record for picking talent. He also has a reputation now for surprising the rest of the NFL.
There certainly is a lot to like about Jenkins. The 49ers, who brought him in for an interview, called him a “gold helmet guy,” meaning they judge his character is as good as his athletic talent.
Jenkins was rated the sixth-fastest player in the draft (a 4.33 40-yard dash time) and had 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight TDs for the Illini his senior year. The 6-foot, 192-pounder has the pure speed to add to what is now a deep receiving corps of Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams.
The bottom line is, Baalke got his man. He goes with his instincts and, so far, those instincts have been good.
Even Nate Davis of USA Today, who wrote that the 49ers’ pick was surprising based on the players still available, said Baalke has earned the benefit of the doubt.
“Far be it from us to question the recent sterling draft record of Niners GM Trent Baalke,” he wrote.