Better late than never, right? That's what DeAndre Smelter is telling himself.
The receiver's first two NFL seasons are best summarized as an arduous journey with more downs than ups. An ACL tear ended Smelter's promising senior season at Georgia Tech in 2014. An eight-touchdown campaign became marred by the rehab that consumed his entire pre-draft process. Even so, the San Francisco 49ers rolled the dice and used a fourth-round pick on the 6-foot-2 wideout.
He spent his rookie season rehabbing his knee. That much was expected. But fans eagerly awaited the debut of the 49ers unknown skill player, and excitement surrounding Smelter continued to build entering the 2016 season. San Francisco was thin at wide receiver and Smelter had more size than any of his peers. A hamstring injury derailed the hype, and the ailment lingered throughout last season. Smelter remained limited during the offseason program.
That's more than two years spent almost exclusively in a training room rather than honing his craft at practice.
"It's been a lot of work," Smelter admitted. "It hasn't been easy, but I've never been one to shy away from working hard."
That work has gotten Smelter to the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally healthy, we are getting to see what the 6-foot-2 wideout is capable of on a football field.
And so far, the results have been largely positive.
Smelter has used his size to make plays on downfield throws. He's handled his counterparts in 1-on-1 drills and shown the ability to make contested catches. (It does help when you have 11-inch hands.)
"I feel really good, but at the same time, my goal is to come out here and make a play every single day," Smelter said. "All of my training was to give me the opportunity to compete in camp. I feel like I've done a good job taking care of my body."
It's easy to forget that Smelter never played football until his junior year at Georgia Tech. The former baseball star is still learning the intricacies of his relatively new sport.
Even so, it's impossible to miss Smelter's natural athletic ability. Now it's time to add some polish.
"I think it's being comfortable with football in general – knowing where I'm at and getting the offense down," Smelter said. "The more I play, the more comfortable I get."
View the top images from the seventh practice of 2017 training camp presented by SAP.
Each day provides a new experience. Smelter couldn't answer where he thrives as a receiver, because quite frankly, he's still figuring that out. He's witnessing his game develop just as we are.
"I still feel like I'm trying to define it," Smelter said. "Every day is helping me understand what I can do best."
Kyle Shanahan raved about Smelter's work ethic. A slot receiver by trade, Smelter has made a point to learn all three positions in Shanahan's system. It has allowed him to get work all over the field and increase his total number of practice reps.
"He works at it as hard as anyone I've been around," Shanahan said. "It doesn't matter what position he's at, you know he's going to know how to do his job. He works at it, and he's been working at it since he got here."
There's no denying that Smelter's goal of making the 53-man roster remains an uphill climb. He's one of 13 receivers in San Francisco's locker room and nearly all of them have flashed during the first week of camp.
But there's no sense in worrying about that. Smelter knows he can only control his own play, and thus far, it's been pretty darn good.
"I'm getting positive feedback that's going to help me get better and possibly make this team," Smelter said.