Sidney Jones’ devastating Achilles injury has some wondering if a team would be wise to draft him and give him a “medical redshirt” for 2017. The San Francisco 49ers brought this to the forefront in 2013 and 2014 when they drafted five players they knew wouldn’t contribute in their rookie seasons, but that could, with a year to recover, turn out to be useful or impactful players. There was a logic behind it, they were coming off a Super Bowl loss and then a NFC Championship Game loss, so the team was already highly competitive; and making 11 and then 12 picks in those years, there wasn’t an easy way to get all of them on the roster, stashing a handful on IR was a work around. The tactic is credited to then-GM Trent Baalke, but then-coach Jim Harbaugh’s college coaching roots may have contributed to the idea: it’s similar to “greyshirting” in college, where a recruit doesn’t enroll until the second semester, not participating in the current season but getting a headstart on next year. Teams that over-recruit use this tactic, which is analogous to a team having too many draft picks.
The 49ers weren’t the only team to do this, but far and away used the most draft picks on them, almost to the point where they are their own case study. The results have not been good for anyone.
2016: Jaylon Smith 2nd (DAL)
Had he been healthy, Smith would have been one of the best prospects in the draft. Four months after tearing his ACL and LCL, the Cowboys selected him in the 2nd round. The jury is still out on him.
2015: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu 7th (CLE)
Ekpre-Olomu tore his ACL and dislocated his knee in December of 2014, requiring two surgeries. Cleveland took a flier on him in the 7th round and released him a year later. Miami claimed him off waivers, but in training camp he tore his ACL again, ending his career.
2014: Brandon Thomas 3rd (SF), Keith Reaser 5th (SF), Trey Millard 7th (SF)
Thomas tore his ACL in a pre-draft workout, Millard and Reaser tore theirs during the college season, with Reaser requiring two surgeries. Thomas didn’t make the gameday roster until the season finale in 2015, but never played a snap. He was traded to the Lions for Jeremy Kerley in the 2016 pre-season, but was released a week later. Millard was cut in 2015 training camp and picked up by the Chiefs, then suffered another torn ACL in the preseason in 2016. Reaser played just 117 total snaps in 2015, but was 4th among 49ers CBs in playing time in 2016.
2013: Tank Carradine 2nd (SF), Marcus Lattimore 4th (SF), Jesse Williams 5th (SEA), Quanterus Smith 5th (DEN), Kapron Lewis-Moore 6th (BAL)
Carradine, who, you guessed it, tore his ACL in college, was added to the 53 man roster midway through his rookie season, but never played. 18 months after being drafted despite two ACL tears in as many years, Lattimore retired. Williams was a potential top prospect that suffered, you guessed it, a knee injury in college, and missed all of 2014 with another knee injury. In 2015 he was diagnosed with cancer and had a kidney removed. After overcoming that, he was released last spring has been out of the league since. Smith, who also had an ACL tear, was a special teamer only in 2014, but since then has been on three teams and was out of the league in 2016. Lewis-Moore spent his first two years on injured reserve rehabbing from an ACL tear, then spent 5 games in 2015 as a special teamer. He was cut in 2016 and spent the year out of the league. He’s currently on the Bears roster.
Going much further back, there are a few exceptions to the rules like Willis McGahee. But by and large, players who enter the draft as physically damaged goods, especially recent ones, don’t get fixed. Eagles fans may remember the much ballyhooed pick of Cornelius Ingram. (Full disclosure: I loved that pick.)
The “medical redshirting” of draft picks hasn’t worked out. Tank Carradine is the best of the medical redshirts and he’s never played even 25% of snaps in his three seasons of play. Perhaps in favor to Sidney Jones, all these players had knee injuries, while Jones suffered an Achilles tear.
A team is going to take a chance on Jones, he’s just too talented to not draft at some point. He might not even need to be “redshirted.” If his recovery is on the shorter end of the 6-9 month timetable, a team could see him on the field in November. The Bengals took a similar chance with Cedric Ogbuehi in 2015 and he started 12 games in 2016 after appearing in 5 in 2015. There’s also Alabama cornerback Bradley Sylve, who tore his Achilles a day before his pro day last year, recovered in October, and ran a low 4.4 40 at this year’s pro day, he had ran high 4.3 40 prior to the injury, which would indicate he was physically back to 100%.
But if the timetable for his recovery looks closer to nine months than six, or a team thinks it’s in the players best interest to sit out the year regardless, it’s a huge risk. Unless he falls to the end of the draft, only a team that has both an excess of picks and already has enough depth at the position to completely write off a draft pick for 2017 should take the low-percentage chance. Drafting a player you don’t expect to play in his rookie year due to depth at the position and natural development is normal, but taking a player you can’t count on to even practice is a waste of a pick, as unfortunate as it is for the player.