SANTA CLARA -- A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, the 49ers' top two draft picks, remain on standby.Neither Jenkins nor James has stepped onto the field during the regular season. And even with season-ending injuries to receiver Kyle Williams and running back Kendall Hunter, there is no indication Jenkins and James will suddenly be asked to fill significant roles in the 49ers' offense.The 49ers' top three wide receivers are Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. Receiver Ted Ginn, the return man, will also be among the 49ers' 46 active players.In order for Jenkins to find a regular role, he would have to be the team's slot receiver in three-receiver formations. Crabtree and Manningham are both capable of playing the slot. And both have done it quite well, according to Pro Football Focus.Crabtree has lined up in the slot 96 times, while Manningham has been there for 41 snaps. Among NFL players with at least 40 plays from the slot, Crabtree and Manningham rank second and third in average yards receiving on plays from the slot.In order for Jenkins to get regular playing time, he would somehow have to nudge out Moss in three-receiver sets. And that seems unlikely.Jenkins said he has learned all of the receiver positions on the outside and the slot. And he appears to be remaining patient for his opportunity."It's the first time in my life I've ever red-shirted," Jenkins said. "Right now, I'm going to use this time to learn my craft and everything, and learn from the vets. When my number is called, I'll be ready to go."A potential role for James is a little easier to envision, but it's certainly not a sure thing, either.With Colin Kaepernick as the starter, the 49ers run the zone-read play with greater frequency. It was one of the staples of the 49ers' offense when Hunter was on the field. Theoretically, Kaepernick and James could team up for that play with Hunter unavailable.After all, Kaepernick and James ran the play very effectively during the exhibition season."Kap ran this offense at Nevada, and I ran it at Oregon," James said. "He does a lot of reads, and I ran a lot of reads at Oregon. I think the chemistry was there, just working with him each and every day in practice. And I think it helped us out tremendously."However, Kaepernick and James have not practiced the play since the end of training camp."(It's) surprising, but I haven't," James said.The reason is because James has seen almost all of his practice time since the beginning of the regular season on the scout team. He is one of the players entrusted to run the opposition's plays in order to prepare the 49ers' defense for the upcoming game."I'm a competitor. I want to go out and play and compete," James said. "But I'm smart enough to know that I still have a lot to learn. This is the NFL. This is a complex offense. There are a lot of things I don't know."Another obstacle standing in the way of James making a contribution is special teams. For most of this season, the 49ers have activated three running backs. Anthony Dixon has been active for every game because he is a core special teams player.Brandon Jacobs, who now figures to be the backup running back, has played in only one game because he does not make a contribution on special-teams coverage units. To place James among the 49ers' 46 active players in Sunday's game means the 49ers would have two running backs in reserve who do not play on the coverage units.Both Jenkins and James are trying to make themselves more versatile -- and, thus, more valuable -- by remaining after practices to work on catching punts and returning kickoffs. James is listed on the 49ers' official depth chart as the backup to Ginn at both of those spots.
SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.
“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”
The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.
“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”
Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.
“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.
“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”
Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.
“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”
Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.
Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.
“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.
Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).
The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.
Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.
In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.
Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.
After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.