Come April, there will be a certain level of attention dedicated to South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who is in the midst of an aggressive rehabilitation following a gruesome knee injury in 2012.
Against the odds, Lattimore is forgoing his senior year to enter the 2013 NFL Draft. When he was on the field, Lattimore was one of the most prolific runners in the NCAA. In limited time, he racked up 2,677 and 38 touchdowns for the Gamecocks and was absolutely booming with potential.
He saw elevated levels of production, never averaging below 4.6 yards per attempt in three seasons. In 29 total games, Lattimore accrued 3,444 yards from scrimmage (118.7 per game).
Between his stats, physical stature and his clear on-field ability, Lattimore has the ceiling of an elite NFL player. He is an extremely gifted runner that projects as a feature back at the pro level.
Before his latest injury, he was the No. 1-ranked running back in the 2013 draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
He was once unanimously considered a first round prospect, and there are those who believe he can engineer this career comeback. But the fact is Lattimore has had two major injuries. It will take the right circumstances and a little bit of luck to overcome this.
And while the road ahead is daunting, it is not unconquerable.
Following his simultaneous PCL and ACL tear against Tennessee, Lattimore sought advice from Willis McGahee and Frank Gore. Both backs overcame devastating college injuries, successfully turned pro and have managed very impressive careers.
Adrian Peterson's comeback is another example of medical miracles occurring in sports. These freakish athletes - coupled with their work ethic and desire - are able to overcome terrible injuries. A long time ago, this may have been it for a player but Lattimore has a chance.
So Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore optimistic about return to start '13 season. Dr. James Andrews told him, "you're going to shock the world."— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 23, 2013
Why He Fits the 49ers:
With all things considered, CBS Sports currently has Lattimore projected to go in the fourth round, as the 9th-ranked player at his position.
Over the past two seasons, the 49ers have been adding depth to the roster through the draft. They have a league-high 14 draft picks, including a number of mid-to-late round picks; one of which could be used on Lattimore.
And the inconvenient truth is that Frank Gore is entering his thirties and only has two years left on his deal with the 49ers. There is the chance that San Francisco looks for his successor in the same year they look for Justin Smith's. A lot of people think Lattimore makes sense as the guy.
With Lattimore's injury and the fact that Gore is still under contract, the SC running back can redshirt as a rookie instead of rushing his rehabilitation. This could provide a nice transition for the Niners and for the incoming rookie.
Come draft day, most NFL teams will be looking for players that can contribute right away. This will allow Lattimore to drop several rounds and be there for San Francisco to stash on their roster. And when looking at the future of this RB corps long-term, it will be important to have complementary skill sets.
Lattimore brings a 6'0", 220 pound build, which Kendall Hunter (5'7") and LaMichael James (5'9") do not. After Gore has moved on, the Niners will be without a true feature back. Hunter and James are dynamic backs but they operate better as relief and situational runners.
The idea is that Lattimore can eventually spearhead this future attack-by-committee in San Francisco. And given his injury history and worn down knees, the 49ers would be able to extend his shelf life because he would not be overused in San Francisco.
He would also add an interesting dynamic to the 49ers new Pistol package which demands a versatile do-it-all type of running back. The 49ers feature a number of packages and sets that utilize multiple running backs, which is why the 49ers need 3+ on their roster.
Player Comparison: Darren McFadden, RB - Oakland
Had he not suffered that gruesome season-ending injury, Lattimore might have gone fourth overall like McFadden. He possesses the skills of a feature back - one that organizations look to build around.
And like the Raiders running back, Lattimore is capable of being an every-down back. He is adaptable to any down and situation because he is just a pure football player. He has that big frame to carry the load and will look to add size in the pros.
Like McFadden, he can be an all-purpose threat out of the backfield. Lattimore was a tremendous receiver for SC, which is great for the West Coast system. He'll also be able to stand in the pocket and take on rushers.
But most of all, his running style models McFadden's, and it's reflective in his big, long stride. Lattimore is a powerful runner that responds well to initial contact. He finishes runs extremely well, displaying great anticipation and balance.
This is a guy that was hardened by SEC defenses; he's a tough runner.
And even though Lattimore doesn't have elite speed, he has the adequate football quickness in open space to pull away from defenders. He moves extremely well at the line of scrimmage, displaying great vision and footwork. All together, his instinctive running style is a valuable asset.
He is the kind of talent that you can build a team around and may wind up being the steal of the draft.
The knock against Lattimore, healthy or unhealthy, is that he does not have elite speed. He is not going to wow defenses with breakaway speed and might not even get to the edge consistently. But it doesn't matter because the 49ers already have that in Hunter and James.
He is the factor the 49ers would otherwise lack post-Gore.
It also goes without saying that Lattimore has inherent durability issues. This works out for both parties since the 49ers use a corps of backs and would not have to give Lattimore a ton of carries. He will not be overworked in San Francisco and will ultimately get to enjoy more playing years in the NFL.
If he is selected by a team that wants to utilize him even as a primary No. 2 as a rookie, it could be catastrophic to his development. The bottom line is, his only flaws are irrelevant when paired with San Francisco, and that makes them a perfect match.
Lattimore is going to blow some minds with his demeanor at the Scouting Combine. Fantastic first impression. Great getting to know him.— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) February 14, 2013
The 49ers have three 3rd round picks and are always in the market for a bargain. When it comes to low-risk, high-reward moves in the 2013 draft, there is none grander than the selection of Marcus Lattimore. And San Francisco is a team that lives by that philosophy, so it might be something they consider on Day 2.
They have acquired a number of high-ceiling players, and there's a chance they got a look at Lattimore when they were scouting Chris Culliver. They should simply draft him and stash him on the roster like they did with Jewel Hampton.
The coaches will have him redshirt as a rookie, allowing him to heal and learn the nuances of the NFL. He will have plenty of time to soak up the playbook and become familiar with San Francisco's running schemes. He could steadily re-acclimate himself to football, both mentally and physically.
And since Gore only has two years left on his deal, Lattimore wil give the 49ers leverage come contract time. There isn't a 49er fan that doesn't want to see No. 21 retire in the Bay Area, but unfortunately the NFL is a business and anything can happen.
But in terms of winning the fan base, what better way to replace an underdog than with another underdog. Marcus Lattimore will have traveled a very similar road as Gore, and even wore No. 21 during his career at South Carolina. There are a lot of people willing to get behind Lattimore because he is someone you want to see succeed.
He is a high-character guy and a fighter.
Moreover, a great deal of this roster is made up of guys who have fought through adversity. And it so happens that it characterizes who they are on game day. Marcus Lattimore fits this team from virtually every standpoint.
The #49ers should pick Marcus Lattimore up and store him on the inactive list for a season? He could be a real steal moving forward.— Marquis Scruggs (@MarquisDotCom) February 15, 2013