After an unprecedented run of season-ending injuries in 2020, the 49ers decided to make a few adjustments.
Devastating injuries throughout last season left John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan scrambling to field a full game-day 46-man roster. The experience left an indelible mark on the 49ers' brain trust, enough that they adjusted their grading system when evaluating 2021 draft prospects.
While the scouting department didn’t entirely eliminate players who had a history of injuries, they assessed the risk levels of players a little differently prior to the 2021 NFL Draft.
“We did tangibly change some things, like our grading process,” Lynch said. “Not what the doctors are telling us, but how it’s delivered just to make it clear. Like, okay is this grade with a high risk or low risk? Just really clarifying that, and I think that was a positive step because it made it probably easier.”
Predicting the potential injury risk of a player is a tough line to walk for evaluators. Sometimes a player with a laundry list of injuries in college ends up having a lengthy professional career and sometimes it is the exact opposite. The one constant is inconsistency.
“Anywhere I’ve been in my career you’ve got a lot of history in different buildings where people are taken off boards because of injuries,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes you debate it the whole time and I’ve been a lot of places where a guy we love is taken off a board and then you watch them go play somewhere else for 10 years, and you’ve got to go against them and you’re like, 'Man, I’m never doing that.’”
The 49ers have had some good luck with players who were deemed high risk, like cornerback Jason Verrett, who bounced back from a litany of injuries to put together a solid 2020 performance. But receiver Jalen Hurd falls on the other side of the equation, having yet to appear in the game after being selected in the third round in 2019.
The 49ers' decision-makers won’t take an extreme approach still evaluating each player on a case by case basis, but a player’s injury risk level is definitely calculated. Sometimes a player’s ability and potential is too much to refuse.
“I think right, wrong or indifferent, Kyle and I sometimes have looked for value with a guy because you might get a real talented player,” Lynch said. “You learn, you grow. We make adjustments each and every year but after you go through what we went through last year, you take a harder look. And we didn’t overreact to it but I think we responded accordingly.”
Going down the list of players drafted by the 49ers this year, there are very few who have missed a significant amount of games due to injury.
The quarterback missed the 2020 season due to COVID-19 but never sat out due to injury. The quarterback had a procedure to trim his meniscus in February 2020, but never missed time on the field.
The offensive lineman had foot surgery in 2019, but never missed a contest while at Notre Dame, racking up 31 total starts.
The running back suffered a shoulder injury in the National Championship game vs. Alabama but did not need surgery. The former Buckeye’s 2019 season did end early, where he missed four games due to a knee sprain (LCL) that did not require surgery.
The cornerback opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns but has never missed a start in his previous three seasons at Michigan.
The tackle has not missed a start in his three-year college career at Western Michigan and there are no reports of any injury history.
The cornerback left a game early after a collision with an opponent in 2019 but never missed a start.
The safety is the draftee with the most significant list of injuries. During his freshman season, Hufanga broke his collarbone and then broke it again a few months later during a 2019 spring practice. After surgery on his right collarbone, he dislocated his shoulder which required a second surgery. But the former Trojan was able to stay healthy in 2020, not missing a single game.
The running back suffered a Lisfranc injury (foot) in 2017 that required two surgeries. The Ragin’ Cajun missed the remaining five games of that campaign but has not missed a contest since with the exception of one game in 2020 due to COVID-19 protocols.