General manager Trent Baalke began the practice in 2013, when the 49ers had 11 draft picks and a proven, veteran-heavy roster after a Super Bowl season.
The 49ers were picking late in each round, and it was going to be difficult for more than a handful of rookies to earn spots on the 53-man roster.
So Baalke drafted two players coming off significant knee injuries who were not expected to make any immediate contribution. Defensive lineman Tank Carradine, generally regarded as a first-round talent, was chosen in the second round. And one of college football’s best running backs, Marcus Lattimore, was selected in the fourth round.
In 2014, the 49ers had a second-round grade on guard Brandon Thomas. They picked him up in the third round after he sustained an ACL tear in a predraft workout. In the fifth round, cornerback Keith Reaser was selected after undergoing a second ACL surgery after the combine. And, again, in the seventh round, the 49ers went with fullback Trey Millard, another player rehabbing from a knee surgery.
Last year, the 49ers picked wide receiver DeAndre Smelter, whose college career ended with an ACL tear, in the fourth round.
Baalke said last week the 49ers’ philosophy has been “to layer it and take a chance on a guy who’s very talented that has more of an upside than some of the other guys.”
The 49ers have yet to experience success with that approach, but Baalke maintains he has no plan to back away from taking such calculated risks in the future.
“I don’t know that that’s something that I’ll veer away from moving forward,” he said.
“We’ve got 12 picks again and you’re not going to have 12 rookies, 12 draft picks, make your team. Will we look at it? If we feel the value’s right.”
The 49ers could have such a decision as early as the No. 7 overall pick.
UCLA linebacker Myles Jack rates as one of the top players in the draft. However, his college career ended with a torn meniscus cartilage in his right knee. There are varying opinions about his physical condition.
Jack has been diagnosed with chondral defect in his knee, Albert Breer of the NFL Network reported this week. Each team has to take into account and determine how the condition – and the risk of a shortened NFL career – impacts where Jack is stacked on their draft board. Baalke has yet to gamble with a pre-existing knee condition with a first-round pick.
Carradine and Reaser are the only players the 49ers drafted with knee injuries that have seen action.
Carradine has appeared in 23 games in his career with one start. Reaser last season played in 13 games, mostly on special teams. But Baalke said he remains firm in his belief that some of the gambles the 49ers have taken in the past will pay off.
After all, Lattimore (retired) and Millard (released) are the only players the 49ers drafted as they rehabbed from ACL injuries not currently on the team’s roster.
“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. Smelter looks good -- knock on wood -- looks very good.
“There’s value. Has it always panned out? No. But you go into it knowing that they’re not all going to pan out.”