With less than three weeks before the season opener, time is running out for the Chiefs to identify their starting wide receiver opposite Dwayne Bowe.
Free-agent signee Donnie Avery will get the first shot at it after he was elevated to the starting X position on Tuesday in the wake of the trade that sent Jon Baldwin to San Francisco for A.J. Jenkins in an exchange of disappointing first-round picks.
“This is why I came here,” said Avery, a six-year veteran who caught a career-best 60 passes for 781 yards and three touchdowns last year at Indianapolis. “I love the offense. It’s a great opportunity for me to make plays … you have to take some of that pressure off Dwayne. With my speed and ability, I can do that.”
Avery got off to a slow start after signing with the Chiefs after missing most of the offseason program because of a sprained ankle. Then he had to bide his time with the second unit while the club gave Baldwin every chance to justify its investment in him.
Once the Chiefs jettisoned Baldwin, they turned to Avery.
“We know A.J. is going to have to come in and learn, and we had to feel comfortable that Donnie was a legitimate starter,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “We felt that. We felt that when we brought him here, we felt that since he’s been here that he can be a quality starter on our football team.”
Avery caught two short passes in Friday night’s preseason game against San Francisco, one for 6 yards and another for 5 yards that was nullified because of an illegal formation. Both of those passes were thrown by backup Chase Daniel.
Starting quarterback Alex Smith is eager to see what Avery can do with the first unit.
“I think he’s had a great camp,” Smith said of Avery. “When he’s had the opportunities, he’s gone in there and made plays. He brings a different dimension to us … a guy who can really stretch the field.”
That was the reputation Jenkins had at San Francisco, which took him with the 30th overall pick in the 2012 draft. But Jenkins was inactive for 10 games and appeared in just three games for the NFC champion 49ers without a catch.
Smith, the 49ers’ starting quarterback for the first nine games of the season, said it was difficult for Jenkins to crack a lineup that included Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.
“It was a different situation,” Smith said. “That’s a veteran team, a lot of pieces in place. It wasn’t his job from the jump. He had to come in and had to battle for it, and it was a deeper roster there, and for whatever reason it didn’t work out. He’s a guy with a ton of talent, a lot of speed, so the change will do him so good.”
This year, Crabtree and Manningham are injured, and the 49ers did not retain Moss. But, still, Jenkins was considered a bust. He caught one pass in the preseason opener against Denver but fumbled on the play. The Chiefs held him without a catch Friday night, and on one of the two passes thrown to Jenkins, cornerback Sean Smith beat him to an underthrown pass for an interception.
“Sometimes a fresh start can be good for guys, for whatever reasons,” Reid said of both Baldwin and Jenkins. “Sometimes guys don’t fit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
“Their games are different. What San Francisco is looking for, Jon will fit right in. What we’re looking for with A.J., he’ll fit in. They lost a big, powerful receiver for a time with Crabtree. Jon fits in that role. We need a little extra kick in there, and we’ll see if A.J. can give us some additional speed.”
Reid said he and receivers coach David Culley studied Jenkins extensively when he was at Illinois, where as a senior he caught 90 passes for 1,276 yards with eight touchdowns.
Jenkins’ lack of production baffled the 49ers, and tight end Vernon Davis told reporters that Jenkins needs to improve his approach to the game, “above and beyond being a professional … as far as studying habits ….’’
Jenkins admitted as much.
“There are some things I can work on as far as my physical traits and my mental approach,” Jenkins said before his first practice with the Chiefs on Tuesday. “But a fresh start, a new team, I’m feeling good, and I’m ready to go out and play some football.”
Chiefs guard Jeff Allen, who played with Jenkins at Illinois, has seen Jenkins bounce back before. Jenkins caught just 10 passes as a sophomore, but a year later, he caught 56 for 746 yards and seven touchdowns and was voted the team’s Most Improved Offensive Player and Most Outstanding Receiver.
“Our sophomore year … things weren’t going his way,” Allen said, “but in the offseason, he worked his tail off and came back ready. He did a lot of great things for us, and it carried over to his senior year.
“We’re obviously at a different level, but A.J. has all the tools and characteristics to do big things in this league, too.”