In the last couple of days, Keith Reaser has started practicing with the first team defense, displacing the presumptive starter Shareece Wright. Reaser, who was a fifth round draft pick last year, tore his ACL while in college, and thus represents one of the more recent "red shirt" picks that Trent Baalke seems fond of making during the mid- to late-rounds. His recent play and potential "starter status" brings up what has become (and must necessarily be) a recurring conversation for San Francisco 49ers fans: how viable is the red shirt strategy?
It's entirely possible that Reaser will see more time on the bench and less on the field; we shouldn't assume that he will be the starter for the rest of the year just because he is lining up with the first team defense. His rise up the CB ranks might be more indicative of a dearth of CB talent on the roster than a product of Reaser's talent. But, the fact remains that Reaser has fought through an injury, established his worth on an NFL roster, and now looks keen to assert his position as a starter on the 49ers. If that isn't a template for a "red shirt" success, then I'm not sure what is.
And in this regard, Reaser might be a persuasive argument that the tactic Baalke has so frequently employed is worthwhile. Drafting "red shirts" was only going to succeed if enough of them are able to recover and be productive players. We needed to find a balance point between recoveries and, well, the Marcus Lattimores.
What the strategy also wants is to find an explosive, first-round-talent type of player later in the draft. In that respect, the closest player we have is probably Quinton Dial, who has reached a level of success. Tank Carradine probably has the potential to be a truly explosive player, but those who have been holding their breath on that front have long ago turned blue.
But, if the team can still be producing quality players who become solid starters, then the strategy might still pay off. Reaser is providing a good argument for the strategy. And, he looks to be matched, at least potentially, by OL Brandon Thomas. In his debut game since suffering a knee injury, Thomas had some solid work, and he might soon be getting some snaps with the starting offensive line. If he does, he would be following the exact same template as Reaser.
This is a discussion we've been having for a few years now, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. The strategy appears to be working enough at this point that it isn't an outright failure, though I am suspicious that he can be a consistent strategy or that it will deliver a truly explosive player in the later rounds like we want it to. But, short of that, at least players like Reaser and Thomas are forcing us to evaluate the strategy due to their good play.