SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Defensive end Tank Carradine was drafted in the second round in 2013 because of a late-season ACL tear suffered during his final year at Florida State, after a number of evaluators gave him a first-round grade before the suffering the injury.
So when 49ers general manager Trent Baalke took Carradine with the 40th-overall pick, he thought he was getting an eventual starter he could project to replace Justin Smith down the road.
But that hasn't happened after Smith announced his retirement in the spring. And suddenly, Carradine finds himself struggling to get on the field all together. In Sunday's win over the Falcons, he didn't play a single snap despite being active on the 46-man game day roster. Even nose tackle Mike Purcell, making his NFL debut, played 14 snaps.
Carradine is just one example of Baalke's recent high-round draft picks that haven't panned out so far, joining Vance McDonald, Corey Lemonier, LaMichael James, A.J. Jenkins, Brandon Thomas, and Marcus Martin, who were all taken in the first three rounds since 2012. None of those players have become productive starters, playing a major role in the downturn of overall talent on the roster.
For the year, Carradine has played 151 of 626 snaps (24 percent), with the last two games against the Rams and Falcons accounting for his lowest snap counts of nine and zero, respectively.
Going back to what Baalke said after the 49ers took Arik Armstead with the 17th-overall pick last spring, it paints a clear picture of the disconnect with Carradine's fit in the defense.
Baalke liked Armstead because he played the same position in Oregon's 3-4 defense as the 49ers employ. Specifically, the 'four technique.'
"Four techniques are hard to find in the National Football League," Baalke said of Armstead in April. "True four techniques are guys that can two gap, play with leverage, leverage blocks and control the line of scrimmage. That is a big part of what we do here. In any given draft, there are four or five, I’m not sure that we’ve ever had more than five on our board that we felt were draftable."
Carradine played defensive end in 4-3 at Florida State, a position that doesn't exist in Eric Mangini's defense, which is vastly different than Baalke's coveted four technique.
Before his draft, Carradine weighed in at 276 pounds. Now he's listed at 295, after he had two surgeries to repair his torn ACL. It's a significant burden to ask any player coming off that type of injury to return and play 20 pounds heavier.
At Florida State, Carradine was a classic edge rusher, using his speed and burst to get around tackles. In passing situations, that's what Carradine considered more natural. Now, as a two-gap player, Carradine has more responsibility on the inside of the formation, while the 49ers' outside linebackers are typically the ones rushing from the edge.
There hasn't been any indiction in Carradine's 17-game career that he's adjusting well to the two-gap position. Head coach Jim Tomsula, Carradine's former position coach, acknowledged this week that because of Carradine's unique skill set, it's more difficult to carve out his role.
"He’s got a really good skillset and just to maximize the skillset," Tomsula said, "I think we can do that without interrupting everybody around him."
Carradine has a negative grade defending the run, according to Pro Football Focus' metrics, with just four stops on the season. Perhaps the most illustrative play of Carradine's struggles within the scheme was Rams running back Todd Gurley's 71-yard touchdown run in the second quarter of the game Nov. 1.
Carradine lined up over right guard, and was blocked right into the ground, giving Gurley a lane to the end zone. He went untouched. And because Carradine was unable to be disruptive at the point of attack, the Rams offensive line was able to get to the second level and block linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Gerald Hodges effectively.
If Carradine is a liability against the run, he might continue to have a hard time finding playing time.
"Tank has to keep working and keep going," Tomsula said. "With some of the pass rush stuff and things like that, that’s where we’re looking to get Tank more involved. So, we’re in the process of, he’s doing a good job of working hard at it and we’re in the process."
Carradine is signed through 2016, but might not stick around beyond this season without showing improvement during the final seven games. His best chance at becoming the player that had a first-round draft grade in college might be to move on to a team that runs a 4-3.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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