Can Baalke Afford to Continue to Draft Injured Players?

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, scheduled for a visit with 49ers, isn't expected to play in 2016

This week, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller reported that injured Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith has a private visit planned with the 49ers in Santa Clara soon.

Smith, the 2015 Butkus Award winner as the top linebacker in college football, was considered a top-10 pick for the 2016 draft until suffering an extensive knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. The injury impacted Smith’s nerves and ligaments, and reportedly his ankle as well.

Now, it’s likely Smith won’t be taken until much later, and his prospects for being able to play as a rookie are cloudy.

As Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee wrote this week about Smith’s condition: “Multi-ligament tears take longer to heal than ACL injuries, and it’s more difficult to return to full strength after them.

“It’s unlikely that Smith will play in 2016. The 49ers – no strangers to drafting injured players – must weigh the risks and determine when they might take a chance on someone like Smith.”

Certainly, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke has a track record of drafting injured players, hoping to get value on players with first-round talent in later rounds. As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted this week, in the recent past when the 49ers had a loaded roster, that seemed like a worthwhile gamble.

But now that the 49ers have dropped into the lower tier of the NFL, can Baalke afford to use some of his draft picks on players who won’t make an immediate impact or perhaps never get on the field?

As Branch pointed out, Baalke used a fourth-round pick in 2015 on wide receiver DeAndre Smelter who didn’t play as a rookie because of a torn ACL his final season in college. Though Smelter has a chance to contribute this year, the Niners may have been better off using that pick on a player who could contribute to Jim Tomsula’s ill-fated season as a head coach.

Other notable injured players drafted by Baalke in recent seasons include running back Marcus Lattimore – who never played – fullback Trey Millard, defensive lineman Tank Carradine, guard Brandon Thomas and cornerback Keith Reaser. Carradine, Thomas and Reaser, at least, still have a chance to be productive players.

Branch wrote that Baalke, when asked about whether he will take a chance on another injured player in the upcoming draft, wouldn’t rule it out.

“Every injury’s different,” Baalke told Branch at the NFL Combine. “Just because you say a knee injury – there’s different levels of severity. There’s different challenges they face. Not everybody reacts to injury the same way psychologically or physically. So there’s always risk. When you take an injured player, you’re rolling the dice.”

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