The San Francisco 49ers announced on Wednesday that running back Marcus Lattimore decided to retire from professional football. The team drafted him in 2013, knowing full well that he likely had upwards of a year or more worth of rehab in front of him to recover from a nasty knee injury. Unfortunately, things did not work out, and Lattimore decided to end his comeback attempt.
There has been a lot of chatter over the last year about the "red shirt" strategy the 49ers have used in the 2013 and 2014 drafts. The 49ers selected Tank Carradine, Marcus Lattimore and Quinton Dial (not quite red-shirt, but close) in 2013. The team then selected Brandon Thomas, Keith Reaser, and Trey Millard. Kenneth Acker injured his foot during the preseason, and Kaleb Ramsey hurt himself during the offseason program. The 49ers placed Acker on IR, and Ramsey on the PUP list. Given they were both healthy when drafted (Ramsey had injury history but was "healthy"), we will not include them for the purposes of this discussion.
The 49ers have used six picks on players that started training camp (and the regular season) on the NFI list. Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine were both activated midway through last season. Dial was able to get some modest work late in the season, while Tank eventually ended up on injured reserve, needing to get his knee cleaned up a bit. The three picks from 2014 will remain on the NFI list and be looked to next season.
There are two reasons to have a problem with the red shirt strategy. The first is that the players are injured and so their chances of contributing are lessened. This picked up with Tank's clean-up last January, and Lattimore's retirement this week. I think this reasoning is erroneous to a certain extent. While it is true Lattimore never made it back, all reports indicate Tank is not playing because he has work to do in terms of picking up certain nuances of the position (sounds like playbook, but could very well be technique stuff as well). The red shirt strategy is about the long game, and it is way too early to declare it problematic.
The second reason to have a problem with the red shirt strategy is that by using picks on long-term projects, the team is sacrificing immediate depth, or the ability to package picks up in the draft for higher impact talent. That is a reasonable argument given how close the 49ers have been to getting over the top. In a win now environment, adding guys who can contribute immediately has tremendous value.
In that regard, while I understand it, I see where the 49ers are coming from with some of these draft decisions. It is a combination of salary cap and age. The team's red shirt strategy effectively started with the 2013 NFL Draft. They were coming off a Super Bowl run in which it became apparent Colin Kaepernick's price was going to climb. Having an 8-figure a year quarterback makes the cap just a little bit more difficult to manage. With Mike Iupati due to hit free agency in 2015, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald getting up there in age, plenty of secondary turnover, and of course an undetermined future with Frank Gore beyond 2014, you can look at each one of those red-shirt picks and see what the team was thinking.
Not all of the remaining picks are going to work out. I do think judging the Tank pick at this point is best suited for next fall. People are declaring it a bust, but I'm inclined to give it until we see what his game-day status is like next September. That requires some patience, and I get that people are annoyed by it, but I think that's really just what we have to do at this point.
Next year will be a big year to see how much success the 49ers find from this strategy. Aside from Tank, Dial has slowly worked his way into the mix, and could see even more playing time this weekend with Demarcus Dobbs gone. The bigger question is what we see of OG Brandon Thomas, and the cornerbacks. Mike Iupati is likely gone after this year, and I have to think the 49ers are hoping Thomas emerges as the new left guard. Additionally, Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver are both free agents after this season. That opens the door for more opportunities, even if Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson develop into bigger roles.
This is still a relatively new strategy. However, in this day and age of medical advances, drafting a player with a significant injury is no longer as problematic as it was in the past. Sure, Lattimore did not work out, but I don't think that alone is reason to avoid the strategy. The 49ers are not going to hit on all of these guys, but if they hit on enough, I can live with it. It is a combination of being about both process and results. We can't say for certain that this is a good strategy long term, but it is way too early to say it is not working.