Marcus Lattimore NFI designation could mean restricted free agency down the road

USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers placed rookie Marcus Lattimore on the Non-Football Injury list. Aside from allowing Lattimore to get back to 100%, he could also lose a season toward free agency. We explore the situation.

Last weekend, the San Francisco 49ers announced eight players they would be placing on the PUP and NFI lists to start training camp. One of those players is rookie running back Marcus Lattimore, who will start camp on the Non-Football Injury list as he continues to rehab his knee from last year's ugly injury.

Lattimore sat down with Yahoo! Sports for an interview, in which he discussed his own rehab, as well as that of Washington QB Robert Griffin III. It's an interesting article, particularly given how medical advances are allowing professional athletes to get back to the field quicker than ever before.

In the interview, Lattimore was asked about the 49ers decision to place him on the NFI list. Lattimore said that physically he felt ready to practice now, discussing the return of knee strength and power. However, he indicated that he understands the 49ers view of things:

"I'm cool with it, it gives me more time to make sure I'm really ready when I do practice."

My belief has been that Lattimore will spend the entire season on the NFI list. The 49ers are incredibly deep at running back with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James likely splitting most of the playing time. They have Jewel Hampton and Anthony Dixon competing for time as well, putting them in position to sit Lattimore all season. It is entirely possible he could bounce back quickly and be ready to go during this season, but giving him time to get back to 100%, learn the playbook, and just work with Frank Gore all year is a pretty solid option for the 49ers.

There is one other potential benefit to sitting Lattimore on the NFI list all season. According to the collective bargaining agreement, a player must accrue at least four seasons of service time to become an unrestricted free agency. If a player accrues three seasons, but less than four seasons, he will become a restricted free agent. If Marcus Lattimore spends 2013 on the NFI list, and then plays 2014, 2015 and 2016, at the end of his rookie contract, he would become a restricted free agent.

If he made it to restricted free agency, the 49ers would be in a similar situation as the Giants were with Victor Cruz. They would potentially be able to retain Lattimore in 2017 for a pretty limited RFA tender. As an RFA, Lattimore could speak with other teams, but as we've seen recently, restricted free agency has not panned out for players as some might have hoped.

All that being said, the 49ers have proven time and again that they will work out extensions fairly early when it is a player they clearly want to keep around. If Lattimore produces in 2014 and 2015, I have to think the 49ers would prefer to get a deal done even before Lattimore hits restricted free agency. They could save a few bucks in RFA, but if Lattimore plays like he has shown in the past, I don't think those few bucks are worth him deciding to walk down the road. Rather, his potential RFA tender year could put the two sides in a position to negotiate a somewhat bigger team-friendly deal.

This is all a long way in the future, so it is nothing to get too bothered about at this point. But I did find it interesting to consider given the 49ers financial situation. They have cap space, but as everybody has said a million times, you can't re-sign everybody. Any opportunities to save a few bucks against the cap are worth exploring.

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