Tank Carradine Quinton Dial 49ers practice

Carradine (left) and Dial (right) combined for 19 snaps in 2013.

In the last couple years, as the San Francisco 49ers looked forward to opening Levi’s Stadium, it appeared that several of their draft day decisions were made with an eye on the future. That’s not a novel idea by any means, but the 49ers’ habit of purposely selecting players who weren’t expected to contribute throughout their rookie seasons is pretty rare. With cheap labor at a premium in the NFL, the team’s penchant for redshirting guys seemed curious at best, borderline arrogant at worst.

It’s not hard to see their logic. With a roster full of talented veterans, they figured they were fine in the short term. Instead of stocking their roster with rookies who expected to get playing time from the moment their careers began, let them learn in the meeting rooms and via practicing, either against the vets or with the strength and conditioning guys on the rehab field. And besides, the unspoken priority was to build a team that peaked after the fans who paid hefty fees for those “Stadium Builders Licenses” were able to sit in their new seats. If they collected ring number six in the interim, great. But the best case scenario was built on creating a team that peaked during Super Bowl 50 … in Santa Clara.

So they selected A.J. Jenkins, probably knowing he’d need some extra development before he could be counted on to start at wide receiver. They took LaMichael James, even though they had no concrete plans on how to work him into their power-rushing attack. We all know now how those draft choices turned out, with Jenkins now in Kansas City and James basically posting “trade me plz” tweets every couple months.

In 2013 the 49ers went a step further, drafting Tank Carradine and Marcus Lattimore. Both players were coming off knee surgeries, and while Lattimore’s condition was considered far more serious it might be Carradine who finds it more difficult to return to full strength. Today Jim Harbaugh told reporters at the NFL scouting combine that Carradine recently underwent a procedure to have a “mass of scar tissue” removed that wouldn’t allow him to straighten his knee.

“They took that out and his leg went straight. He looks like a different guy now, since that procedure. Just what we saw when he did practice with our football team and now this procedure that’s been done, I’m even more excited. I think he’s going to have a great offseason and look forward to his progress very, very much,” Harbaugh said.

That’s probably something NFL players need, the ability to bend AND straighten one’s knee. Both knees, preferably.

Harbaugh painted an optimistic picture with his comments, but this is terrible news for their second round pick. Instead of just an ACL tear, which players can usually recover fully from within a year or less these days, he suffered from arthrofibrosis. Carradine might be able to work through this setback and become an impact player, but there’s also a chance he never plays in a regular season game.

Lattimore has been working hard since the 49ers drafted him, but he told me back in early January that he was still “three or four months” away from being at full strength. However, a gamble on a collegiate superstar like Lattimore at No. 131 is a lot easier to explain than choosing Carradine with the 40th pick overall.

Even perfectly healthy players drafted in the first couple rounds can get injured or disappoint in terms of performance, and it’s not like Baalke is a bad drafter. He just isn’t a very consistent drafter. 2011’s class was fantastic. 2012 was a total loss. It’s too early to judge 2013:

  • 1(18). Eric Reid, Safety, LSU
  • 2(40). Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, Defensive End, Florida State
  • 2(55). Vance McDonald, Tight End, Rice
  • 3(88). Corey Lemonier, Outside Linebacker, Auburn
  • 4(128). Quinton Patton, Wide Receiver, Louisiana Tech
  • 4(131). Marcus Lattimore, Running Back, South Carolina
  • 5(157). Quinton Dial, Defensive Lineman, Alabama
  • 6(180). Nick Moody, Linebacker, Florida State
  • 7(237). B.J. Daniels, Quarterback, South Florida
  • 7(246). Carter Bykowski, Offensive Tackle, Iowa State
  • 7(252). Marcus Cooper, Defensive Back, Rutgers

Reid made it to the Pro Bowl as an alternate, Lemonier played some snaps and showed signs that he can be a productive pass rusher, Patton drove Tarell Brown crazy in the locker room and made some key plays later in the year, and hey … McDonald could flourish under the tutelage of new tight ends coach Eric Mangini.

Mangini may have been a redshirt signing as well, since no one can explain what he contributed in 2013 other than some awful decisions on replay challenges.

The 49ers have the same number of draft picks in May as they did last April. With so many selections, some have mentioned trading up for a top wide receiver like Sammy Watkins. That usually isn’t the 49ers’ style, but what they cannot afford to do is treat those picks like they’re bonuses, or extra picks. The core of this team is full of players either getting kind of old or looking forward to massive raises. If the 49ers have designs on continuing as championship contenders throughout Harbaugh’s tenure, they’re going to need to stick to players who they can plug in and play right away, or at least be ready to contribute if a starter gets injured.