Over the past few years, the 49ers have gambled on several injured players in the draft.
General manager Trent Baalke has selected formerly highly touted prospects, getting them at bargain prices and stockpiling them for future use.
Sometimes, as with South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, it doesn’t work out. Lattimore, selected by the 49ers in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, was rated as a first-round talent for the Gamecocks before suffering a second knee injury. Eventually, he retired without ever playing a down in San Francisco.
Fortunately for the Niners, all it cost was a fourth-round draft choice.
As the 49ers prepare to open training camp Saturday with their first full-squad workout, another of those low-risk, high-reward Baalke gambles will be in the spotlight: guard Brandon Thomas.
Thomas, a third-round pick in 2014 out of Clemson, possibly was destined to be a high second-round pick until suffering an ACL tear in a pre-draft workout.
Now Thomas – after more than a year of rehabilitation, film study and participation in recent spring team workouts – is ready to go.
It’s projected that Thomas is the No. 1 candidate to win the left guard spot vacated by Mike Iupati. In fact, much of the success of the offensive line in 2015 could hinge on Thomas regaining the momentum he had at Clemson, when the 6-foot-3, 317-pounder was a first-team, all-Atlantic Coast Conference left tackle who impressed scouts with his smarts and athleticism.
Thomas told a reporter this spring that the past year has been beneficial for him because he’s been able to learn from veteran left tackle Joe Staley while also spending hours and hours lifting weights and watching video.
“Last year I took it upon myself to focus on film study,” Thomas said. “That was a major part because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out there on the field. Film room was a big part for me and especially the weight room. I got my legs stronger and I’m just ready to go.”
What kind of a lineman will 49ers fans see in Thomas?
The draft profile of Thomas by Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com notes that Thomas has long arms (34¾ inches) and big hands (10½ inches), who uses both to his advantage. “Strong-handed puncher with good grip strength once he latches on,” wrote Nawrocki. “Athletic, efficient mover. Light on his feet.”
Nawrocki noted that Thomas improved ever year at Clemson – where he played both guard and tackle – and is projected in the pros to be “a long-term fixture at left guard.”
Beginning Saturday, the 49ers hope that projection -- and their gamble -- turns out to be on the money.