Trent Baalke was responding to a question about his predilection for drafting injured players this week when he paused, seemingly trying to recall one of those players.
The reporters gathered around him quickly filled in the gap.
“Marcus Lattimore?” one said.
“Tank Carradine?” another suggested.
“Brandon Thomas?” someone offered.
“Keith Reaser?” said another.
“No, no, no,” Baalke, the 49ers’ general manager, said with a chuckle. “I know who we drafted. I’m surprised you know.”
He shouldn’t be surprised. Drafting rehabilitating players has become one of his signatures. Every follower of the 49ers knows Baalke likes big-bodied, long-armed players – and that he’s not afraid of an ACL tear.
Of the 58 selections Baalke has made since 2010, six entered the NFL with serious knee injuries that wiped out most, if not all, of their rookie seasons. Another, guard Joe Looney, had a Lisfranc foot injury when he was drafted and did not play as a rookie.
Baalke will have plenty of chances to add rehabilitating players this year, too, perhaps with his first selection.
UCLA’s Myles Jack is considered the top linebacker in the draft. He’s so athletic UCLA coaches used him as a part-time running back as a freshman, and he averaged 7.0 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns. As a sophomore in 2014, he had 88 tackles.
He’s also very good in pass coverage and, if paired with NaVorro Bowman, could give the 49ers the kind of one-two pop at inside linebacker the defense had in its recent, celebrated past.
But over the past few months, there’s been more scrutiny of Jack’s right knee than his ability to take on blockers. He tore the meniscus in the knee in September, left school, did not work out at the combine in February and only went through a partial routine at his pro day last month. And a medical recheck this month left teams with an array of opinions about the long-term stability of his knee.
Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith, another inside linebacker prospect, tore both his ACL and lateral collateral ligament on Jan. 1 and isn’t expected to play this season. Like Jack, his 2015 game film suggests he’s a top-10 talent, but Smith might fall to the draft’s third day – rounds four through seven – because of his lost season and questions about whether he’ll return to full strength.
Smith and Jack were among the 30 or so players who visited the 49ers; Baalke also attended Jack’s pro day in March.
That suggests Baalke won’t change his approach, and he said as much Wednesday.
One reason for drafting an injured player is that a team can get him a round or two after he would have been taken if healthy. Another is because Baalke, who likes to accumulate picks, knows every incoming rookie won’t make the 53-man roster. An injury allows him to stash a potential talent on an injury list.
“To take a chance on someone who’s very talented and has more talent than some of the other guys? I don’t know that’s something I’ll veer away from moving forward,” Baalke said. “We’ve got 12 picks (in this year’s draft) and you’re not going to have 12 rookies, 12 draft picks, make your team. So will we look at it? If we feel the value’s right.”
Baalke’s gambles, however, haven’t paid off.
Lattimore, a running back from South Carolina, retired two years after he was drafted. Fullback Trey Millard is with Kansas City. Looney signed with the Cowboys last month, his third team since the 49ers drafted him in the fourth round in 2012. Carradine (pass rusher), Thomas (guard) and Reaser (cornerback) haven’t played much.
Baalke said it was still too early to judge some of the injured players he has selected. The 49ers took Carradine in 2013 – he’s entering the final year of his contract – and Thomas and Reaser were selected in 2014. Receiver DeAndre Smelter, taken in the fourth round last season after tearing his ACL in college, sat out last season but is healthy now and is being eyed for a significant role.
“I think Tank Carradine’s going to have a very good season this year, I really do,” Baalke said. “Brandon Thomas – we’ll see where he’s at with the new system, the new offense. And Keith Reaser, I think he showed last year at times, when he got into the games – which he didn’t get into many games – that he’s more than capable.”
Five of the players with medical issues were drafted in the fourth round or later. Thomas was a late third-rounder; Carradine was selected early in the second.
Jack presents a more difficult dilemma.
Unlike someone recovering from an ACL tear, he’ll be able to play this season. In response to the clamor after Jack’s medical re-check, his agent released a video of Jack working out for the Jaguars, who have the fifth pick. The concern is how long he can play before another injury occurs.
He’s expected to be taken among the first 10 picks, which magnifies the uncertainty. The 49ers have the seventh pick.
“No matter who you take, there’s some form of risk,” Baalke said. “Some riskier than others. Some with potential better outcomes than others.”
- When: April 28, 5 p.m. (Round 1); April 29, 4 p.m. (Rounds 2-3); and April 30, 9 a.m. (Rounds 4-7)
- Where: Chicago
- No. 1 pick: Los Angeles
- 49ers’ first pick: No. 7
- Raiders’ first pick: No. 14
- TV: ESPN, NFL Network