The San Francisco 49ers added to their group of draft picks coming off ACL tears this past weekend when they spent their fourth round compensatory pick on Georgia Tech wide receiver DeAndre Smelter. The 49ers have added players coming off ACL tears each of the last three drafts, with mixed results thus far.
Since adding Smelter, there has been some confusion among 49ers fans about what his ACL injury means. In this morning's Golden Nuggets, Billy mentioned that Smelter is not expected to participate this coming season. That is not necessarily an accurate statement, but I also think it is a common perception of Smelter's situation and how the 49ers have handled college ACL tears.
Smelter tore his ACL on November 29 in the Yellow Jackets win over the Georgia Bulldogs. During his post-selection interview on Saturday, Smelter said he is currently just straight line running, and not doing any cutting yet. He said he does not have any expectations for the 2015 season other than to do what the 49ers doctors tell him to do.
Trent Baalke was asked if he planned on "red-shirting" Smelter due to his ACL. Baalke said:
"I don't know that 'redshirt' is the right word. He should be ready to go. It all depends what he looks like when he gets in here, what we need to do to get him rehabbed and ready to go. But it's a situation where he may not be ready for training camp, but he may be ready at some point in the immediate future after that. We just got to get our hands on him, see exactly where he's at. But feel confident that the rehab is going very well up to this point. We'll see what we're dealing with when we get our hands on him."
I would not expect Baalke to reveal that Smelter is not playing this year and that's that, and he parsed his words fairly carefully to some extent.
No two ACL injuries are exactly the same, but there are two comps we might consider in assessing Smelter's status at this early juncture. Last year, the 49ers drafted Oklahoma fullback Trey Millard. He suffered an ACL injury October 26, 2013. He opened the season on the NFI list, was brought back to the practice field in the middle of the season, and then was shut down the rest of the way. We don't know exactly where Millard was with his knee injury, but the 49ers did have an easy out to stash him for the season.
Back in 2012, wide receiver Kyle Williams tore his ACL on November 25. He opened 2013 training camp on the PUP list. Five days into camp, he was activated off the PUP list and was active Week 1 of the regular season. The timeline is somewhat comparable to Smelter, but the 49ers were not going to be able to "red-shirt" Williams.
I think it is certainly possible Smelter is available at some point this season, but I am not exactly counting on it. If he spends the season on the NFI list, the 49ers get a chance at an extra year with him. At the end of his four year contract, he would only have three years of service, making him a restricted free agent instead of unrestricted free agent.
If the 49ers think he can contribute, and their wide receiver corps struggles behind Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, they very well could decide to activate him this year. However, if they are comfortable with Bruce Ellington and/or Quinton Patton's development (or Jerome Simpson shows some things) later this fall, they might be inclined to stash Smelter for a year.