Starting with the 2013 NFL draft, then-General Manager Trent Baalke made it a habit of drafting injured players with a lot of possible upside. With his second-round selection that year, he drafted defensive lineman Tank Carradine out of Florida State. He then proceeded to draft running back Marcus Lattimore, who was recovering from a gruesome knee injury. The next year he took guard Brandon Thomas, cornerback Keith Reaser, and fullback Trey Millard. In 2015, Baalke chose wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, and in 2016 he picked cornerback Will Redmond. Over those years that gave him these picks who were injured:
That’s a second, two thirds, two fourths, a fifth, and a seventh round draft pick on a host of players who never really contributed to the 49ers on the field. Tank Carradine recently left for the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders. Lattimore and Millard never played. Thomas, Reaser, and Redmond played sparingly and hung onto spots at the bottom of a quickly depleting roster. Smelter has one catch for 23 yards in his NFL career. None of these players are still on the 49ers roster.
In 2017, John Lynch knocked his first draft as a general manager out of the park. Partially because his roster had so many holes, it wasn’t hard to find good picks throughout the draft. Still, finding a high quality starting safety in Round 7 (Adrian Colbert) is the type of thing that GM legends are based on. They drafted ten players, nine of whom made the 53-man roster. The lone outlier, Joe Williams, was placed on injured reserve. Of the 18 undrafted free agents they signed, eight made the active roster at some point. Lynch and V.P. of Player Personnel Adam Peters were busy finding difference makers.
Going into 2018, of those nine rookies, Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, C.J. Beathard, George Kittle, Trent Taylor, and Adrian Colbert would seem to have guaranteed spots on this year’s roster. Williams needs to beat out Raheem Mostert for a roster spot. A pair of sixth-round defensive linemen, D.J. Jones and Pita Taumoepenu, are less certain to make the roster, and they could find themselves on other teams.
In Round 4 of the 2018 Draft, Lynch pulled the trigger on Kentavius Street, a defensive end from North Carolina State, who, at 6’2” and 280 pounds, squats 700 lbs and runs a 4.56 40 yard dash. He is an athletic monster who was not the starting LEO player everyone thought the 49ers would walk away from the draft with. Josh Sweat was still on the board and was considered a top edge-rushing prospect. Street tore his ACL in April during a pre-draft workout slowing the climb he was making on many teams’ draft boards.
Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are not sitting on a completed roster. There are question marks at more than one position on both sides of the ball. This was a 6-10 team who started off at 1-10. This isn’t a team who by most accounts should be taking a round off of the draft. What was Lynch thinking? I imagine Lynch trusted what Shanahan was telling him, that he liked his group and that he thought the players they had a chance at didn’t improve the LEO position. After the draft he said, “You've got to be pretty good to beat out Marsh. You’ve got to be pretty good to beat out (Arik) Armstead. You don't just get guys. If you get them, someone else has got to get cut and we’ve got a pretty good group.”
The four players chosen before Street – Mike McGlinchey, Dante Pettis, Fred Warner, and Tarvarius Moore – should make the final 53-man roster and contribute. At least one if not three of those players will start. D.J Reed, Marcell Harris, Julian Taylor and Richie James – the four players taken after Street – all have difficult paths to the final roster.
Harris knows a little bit about redshirt years, as he spent the entire 2017 season , his senior season at the University of Florida, out of action due to a torn Achilles. This pick is also reminiscent on Baalke, which has the more paranoid and pessimistic fans a little worried about the direction of the team. With ten, if not eleven, of the defensive starters and most likely ten of the eleven offensive starters already on the roster before the draft, Lynch could afford to look long term a little more in 2018 than he did in 2017.
Baalke drafted injured players because he believed that his current roster didn’t need additions. Shanahan and Lynch have both been very high on Marsh, Solomon Thomas, Armstead, and Jeremiah Attaochu (who happens to have the most career sacks on the roster with 10). Was it a good idea to take Street as a redshirt rookie? That depends on whether you trust Shanahan and his talent evaluators. Street could be a replacement for Armstead if they don’t bring him back next season.
If his knee recovers, and he comes in next year gangbusters, then this pick was perfectly planned. If he doesn’t and it proves to be a waste of a fourth round draft pick, I personally will give Lynch a pass. The possibility of having a freakish front four with a combination of four of the five (Street, Armstead, Earl Mitchell, DeForest Buckner, and Thomas) would have any GM and head coach happy to gamble one mid-round pick. The fact that Lynch and Shanahan were willing to gamble on a hyper-athletic defensive lineman, and a defensive back coming off of an Achilles tear (but further into rehab than Richard Sherman) have me happy that the 49ers are no longer the place with a million leaks. They can build depth and grow from within, and that gives me optimism for the future of the franchise.
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