SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Getting to play in the NFL is a tricky process. College players enter their final seasons at their respective schools with high hopes, knowing if they continue to improve and ride their trajectories, they will get taken in the upcoming draft.
That was true of Utah receiver Dres Anderson, who came into 2014 fresh off a career-best 1,032-yard, seven-touchdown campaign as a junior. If he continued to improve as a senior, he thought he could get drafted as high as the second or third round this spring.
After all, Anderson averaged 18.9 yards per reception in 2013 and ran in the 4.4s, embodying the down-field threat NFL teams covet to stretch defenses and create room on the outside. He's an inch taller than former Ohio State receiver Devin Smith, who was taken with the 37th-overall pick in the second round by the New York Jets, and ran virtually the same time at his pro day.
But Anderson tore a meniscus in October against USC, ending his senior season with disappointment, after notching 355 yards on 22 catches in seven games. His recovery bled into his draft preparation, and he was unable to run at February's scouting combine. Anderson was forced to deal with the heartache of going undrafted, before signing with the 49ers as free agent soon after the final pick was made.
Anderson said his injured knee was given a 'C' grade by some NFL team doctors, meaning there was significant risk in drafting him.
"That’s barely draftable, according to NFL teams," Anderson said, noting his agent told him, "A team may take a chance on you, it’s kind of doubtful right now."
But if there was a team to take a chance, it was the 49ers, who have continued to acquire players while their value is low because of knee injuries. In some cases, it hasn't worked for San Francisco. In others, the results are still up in the air.
Defensive end Tank Carradine and offensive lineman Brandon Thomas both missed their first seasons after sustaining torn ACLs before getting drafted - where they were taken lower than they would have if healthy. This year, both are earmarked for significant roles. Running back Marcus Lattimore, of course, was forced to retire before ever taking an NFL snap after sustaining his horrific knee injury while at South Carolina.
But Anderson's meniscus tear was far less severe than the typical torn ACL, which normally takes being sidelined 8-10 months. He was able to fully participate at his pro day earlier this spring, and ran a speedy 4.43 forty. Smith, the Jets' new wideout, ran a 4.42 at the combine.
"I know my knee wasn’t a 'C' even though they graded it like that," Anderson said after Thursday's session of the team's voluntary OTAs. "I’m out here running fast, playing, and everything feels good. Everything happens for a reason."
"Teams were surprised that I didn’t get drafted yet and they were just letting me know if I did go as a free agent, that they would love to me."
Anderson has been a full participant of the team's offseason program since signing. He said his knee is fully recovered and doesn't require special treatment from the medical staff. But he's made strengthening it in the weight room a priority over the next three months before the start of training camp.
Anderson is one of five undrafted receivers the 49ers brought in. He reportedly signed for $50,000 total, which was the most of the team's nine undrafted free agents.
General manager Trent Baalke has said, on more than one occasion, the 49ers offense needs more speed on the outside. Anderson brings just that.
"They let me know that I was great for those type of things, stretching the field and putting that stress on the defense," Anderson said. "They got Torrey Smith and they would love another guy like me. Those are the things that they sold me on."
To this point, all the 49ers' work this offseason has been voluntary, which has led to starter Anquan Boldin being absent. Second-year player Bruce Ellington has been sidelined by a leg injury, allowing more reps for the remaining 10 receivers on the team's 90-man offseason roster, including Anderson.
Anderson's father, Willie, more commonly known as "Flipper," is a 10-year NFL veteran receiver that spent seven seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. He owns the single-game record for receiving yards when he notched 336 against the New Orleans Saints in 1989.
Behind starters Boldin and Torrey Smith, the 49ers don't have established options to fill out the receiving corps, which is why they added five undrafted wideouts following the draft. That leaves Anderson an opportunity to win a spot on the 53-man roster, and leave behind the bad taste of going undrafted.
49ERS RECEIVERS ON 90-MAN ROSTER
Dres Anderson (6-2, 190)
Issac Blakeney (6-6, 225)
Anquan Boldin (6-1, 220)
DiAndre Campbell (6-2, 206)
Darius Davis (5-11, 212)
Bruce Ellington (5-9, 197)
Chuck Jacobs (6-0, 178)
Quinton Patton (6-0, 204)
Jerome Simpson (6-2, 190)
DeAndre Smelter (6-2, 227)
Torrey Smith (6-0, 205)
DeAndrew White (6-0, 192)