Will GM Trent Baalke's gambles on injured players pay off for Jaguars?

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL draft is a gamble.

Teams commit a lot of resources into research, scouting, the combine, measurements, drills, aptitude tests and meetings. They compile all of that information and come up an educated guess about a player, but they don't really know until the player gets on the field.

Injuries and, this past season, opt-outs because of COVID-19 can make it even harder to assess players, but Jacksonville Jaguars GM Trent Baalke is willing to take that added risk because the potential payoff could be worth the gamble. He did it in San Francisco with injuries and again with his first draft with the Jaguars. The results will start to play out this weekend with the team’s rookie minicamp.

Safety Andre Cisco, a third-round pick, missed most of last season because of a torn ACL and offensive lineman Walker Little, picked in the second round, missed most of the 2019 season with a torn ACL and opted out of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both of those players will be practicing for the first time in more than a year, as will defensive tackle Jay Tufele, a fourth-round selection, who opted out of the 2020 season because of the pandemic.

“What we do is risk-reward at a lot of different levels, whether sometimes it’s character, sometimes it’s injury, sometimes it’s position changes,” Baalke said. “There’s risk-reward in what we do, and you have to vet it. You have to do the best job you can, which if you shy away from it, you lose a lot of options on draft day.”

Cisco and Tufele could be starters or key reserves in 2021. Little could be the Jaguars’ starting left tackle in 2022, provided there are no lingering issues from the injuries and layoff. And, of course, that the Jaguars didn’t miss on their evaluations.

Cisco (picked 65th overall) had 13 interceptions in 24 games at Syracuse and was the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017. He suffered a torn ACL in a pregame collision with a teammate on Sept. 26 and missed the rest of the season, but says he’s at 85% in his recovery and expects to be fully cleared in time for training camp.

Tufele (picked 106th overall) opted out of the 2020 season after several family members tested positive for COVID-19 -- including his older sister, who was hospitalized and in intensive care. He was an All-Pac-12 first- and second-teamer and twice was named USC’s Defensive Lineman of the Year.

Little, whom the Jaguars took 45th overall, is the most intriguing of the three. He was an All-Pac 12 first-teamer in 2018 after being the league’s Freshman Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2017. He suffered a torn ACL in the 2019 season-opener and then opted out of the 2020 season.

He was considered one of the best tackles in the country in 2019 and may have been a first-round pick had he played in 2020. He says he’s as strong and in shape as he’s ever been and the Jaguars hope he’s not too rusty to push Cam Robinson this year and slide into a starting job in 2022.

Baalke’s track record of drafting players with torn ACLs, however, isn’t great. From 2013-16, he drafted seven players that were coming off torn ACLs in college and only three ever played a game for the 49ers. Three others never played in an NFL game for any team, while another player eventually caught on with another team.

The most notable of those draft picks is former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, whom the 49ers drafted in the fourth round in 2013. He tore the ACL in his left knee as a sophomore and then suffered a catastrophic injury to his right knee the following season, tearing every ligament, dislocating his kneecap, and suffering nerve damage.

Lattimore never played a game and retired in November 2014.

Guard Brandon Thomas (fourth round in 2014) and fullback Trey Millard (seventh round in 2014) also never played an NFL game. Cornerback Will Redmond (third round in 2016) never played a game for San Francisco, but has played in 31 with Green Bay the past three seasons.

Linebacker Tank Carradine (second round in 2013) played in 44 games (eight) starts and had 5.5 sacks and 76 tackles in four years with San Francisco. Cornerback Keith Reaser (fifth round in 2014) played in 29 games (no starts) and had 38 tackles in four years with the 49ers. Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter (fourth round in 2015) had one catch in two games with the 49ers.

“Every case is so much different, every injury,” Baalke said. "How quickly they come back, again, [is] independent of one another.”

This year’s gambles may be the ones that finally pay off big.