San Francisco 49ers

Trent Baalke is still on “Team ACL,” but why?

It’s as predictable as early third quarter photos tweeted by local reporters of the empty stands on the eastern side of Levi’s Stadium. If a guy was once thought of as a top talent, someone who either was drafted in the first or second round, or would’ve been if he had two intact anterior cruciate ligaments, Trent Baalke is interested.

As Chris Biderman points out, the 49ers have chosen at least one player recovering from a torn ACL in each of the last three drafts.

  • 2013: Tank Carradine (second round), Marcus Lattimore (fourth round)
  • 2014: Brandon Thomas (third round), Keith Reaser (fifth round), Trey Millard (seventh round)
  • 2015: DeAndre Smelter (fourth round)

Marcus Lattimore 49ers minicamp

(No, Lattimore’s left leg wasn’t amputated … not that Baalke would’ve been deterred if it was.)

Oh, and that “Team ACL” list above doesn’t include Marcus Martin, who dislocated his left kneecap and sprained his ankle in his last collegiate bowl game.

Why is Baalke so confident in modern orthopedic medicine? Or, specifically, the 49ers medical staff? Cam Inman explored this topic last May.

“The medical advances, not only in the surgical techniques but also with the rehab and recovery, it’s night and day what these guys get to do,” Baalke said last year.

Except the 49ers’ draftees coming off ACL surgery have combined to play just 36 games — 23 for Carradine and 13 for Reaser. Carradine has one career start, 30 tackles and four sacks, while Reaser accumulated six tackles in a part-time role last season. Lattimore retired due to his inability to return from an injury that was far more severe than a garden-variety ACL tear, Thomas is on the verge of being labeled a complete bust (rather than “a bust up to this point”), and the 49ers waived Millard before the 2015 season.

Baalke’s attraction to torn knee ligaments in the draft is well-documented, but inviting Silatolu over for a physical isn’t his first flirtation with a gimpy free agent. Remember Darnell Dockett, who signed with the 49ers for $2 million guaranteed after tearing his ACL the previous August? That ended well.

Silatolu could start the 2016 season on the PUP list, seeing as he tore his left ACL on Nov. 22. He also missed most of 2013 due to a torn right ACL in Week 5 of that season too, which probably makes him look that much better to Baalke. Silatolu is from Redwood City, and after getting drafted in the second round in 2012, he played 15 games in his rookie year. He’s played 18 games in the three years since.

Why does Baalke keep going after these guys?

I’m at a loss. Let’s see what Inman got out of him.

“You try to look at the intangibles, look at the wiring, look at their work ethic, look at their mental toughness,” Baalke said, “and you bet on where you think those guys are going to take themselves post-injury.”

And Baalke has seen guys return from torn ACLs before. NaVorro Bowman didn’t look anywhere near as fast as he was before his injury, but he was able to lead the NFL in tackles last season. Chris Culliver returned from a torn ACL and played well enough in 2014 to get a big contract from Washington … then he tore his ACL and MCL in late-November.

But maybe the man we should blame is Frank Gore, for being so damned tough and amazing. Gore famously fell to the third round of the 2005 Draft after tearing his right and left ACLs at Miami, and he went on to become the 49ers’ leading all-time rusher and the NFL’s top active rusher (12,040 yards), No. 15 all-time. Gore was chosen by Scot McCloughan, but Baalke was a huge fan — anyone who watched pregame warmups could see evidence of Baalke’s affection toward his star running back.

Frank Gore Trent Baalke

See, but Gore is also an extraordinary person, even compared to other elite professional athletes. His dyslexia almost prevented him from making it to college, but he’s known as a football savant who sees things no one else can and memorizes playbooks. He grew up quite poor, sharing a two-bedroom home with nine other family members. One was his cocaine-addicted mother, who died of kidney disease in 2007. Gore even broke his hip in 2010 and rushed for 1,210 yards and eight touchdowns the following season.

Does Baalke try too hard to see Gore’s intangibles in other ACL-stricken players who fall through the draft cracks and receive little to no interest in free agency? It would appear so, and that strategy has come at a cost to Baalke and the 49ers.

Perhaps Carradine, who shed weight to transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, can become the kind of pass rusher Baalke envisioned. Smelter practiced at the end of last season; it’s way too early to close the book on him. If the 49ers sign Silatolu and he can get and stay healthy, he would be an upgrade over the interior linemen on the roster. The overall results are not cut and dry, but there’s not a lot of evidence that Baalke is accomplishing a lot with his ACL strategy other than testing the patience of 49ers fans.

It takes more than an optimistic viewpoint for Baalke to keep doing this. It takes stubbornness and a deaf ear to critics, as “Team ACL” long ago became a running punchline among smart-ass fans and writers alike (as seen at the top of this story). One has to wonder if he’ll ever realize that making it in the NFL is difficult enough for someone with two good knees, and most players recovering from severe injuries turn out like Thomas, not Gore. Based on Matt Maiocco’s report from earlier today, it doesn’t look like Baalke will change his ways anytime soon.

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