In 1981, Ronnie Lott was picked eight overall in the first round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Lott was an amazing athlete at USC and was projected to go in the first round.
At that time, the medical staffs of several teams believed Lott would have a short career due to his prior knee problem. Many deemed Lott a medical misfit, including the New York Jets. Of course, we know Lott made 10 Pro Bowl appearances and is a Hall of Famer. Ironically, after his time with the 49ers and subsequently the Raiders, the Jets picked him up 1993 (although the team passed him up in 1981).
Lott is probably one player whose medical history had little effect on his performance in the NFL. In fact, now, his pre-NFL injury is so insignificant, it is tough to find anything out about it. Without doubt, the 49ers made a good choice with him.
When it comes time for the draft, most fans focus on stats, tape or combine performance, but there's more involved than simple abilities and talent. Preparing for the draft is a year-long job. As soon as one draft ends, teams begin working on the next.
We love to give Baalke and Harbaugh all the praise. They do deserve a lot as they make the ultimate decision. But, the fact is, they surround themselves with very smart people who advise them well. We have seen pictures of the war rooms. The football team acts as a body. It is not just one individual. One person who I think gets little credit is the director of college scouting, Joel Patten. He spends upwards of 200 days of the year on the road, and manages all the 49ers scouts.
Another significant element is the 49ers medical staff. Our doctors are tremendously valuable, especially prior to the draft. Like the example with Lott, some teams get it right and some get it wrong. But, every team wants what is known as a medical-competitive edge. This is why teams must regularly evaluate their own doctors - like they evaluate everyone else. What inspires confidence in the 49ers medical staff is they have teamed up with Stanford University. The team doctors (Dan Garza (team medical director), Tim McAdams (orthopaedic surgeon), Gary Fanton (orthopaedic surgeon), William Maloney (orthopaedic surgeon), Scott Hyver (eye doctor)), under the direction of Jeff Fergeson, are all Stanford physicians.
Together, the medical staff wields significant influence. During the combine, most fans focus strictly on the workouts and statistical numbers. But, it involves quite a bit more behind the scenes. The 49ers have an opportunity to medically examine and evaluate over 300 draft prospects.
An experienced medical staff first takes an extensive medical history on each prospect. Second, it performs general medical examinations. Third, the team's surgeons conduct thorough orthopedic exams, looking at all muscle, skeletal and bone issues (if any). There are even psychological tests. Finally, there are the workouts everyone talks about. As you can see, one of the biggest pieces of information teams get from the combine is the medical perspective of the prospect's durability and longevity.
From the combine to the days preceding the draft, we know the 49ers medical staff takes all the information obtained at the combine, i.e., x-rays, CTs, MRIs and goes through every medical study to give each prospect a grade. This grading process is strictly from a medical standpoint. The medical team's major objective is to arm the head coach and the GM with enough information, so they can make the right decision.
The 2013 draft contains hundreds of prospects, several with medical baggage. It will be interesting what conclusions the 49ers medical staff have made about each player's health report and prognosis.
The 49ers medical staff does not make the final decisions, but they are among the best information gathers. If the 49ers decide to draft a player with medical history, know the entire medical history has been considered and factored in the player's draft stock.