Marcus Lattimore found himself in an unenviable position.
The former South Carolina Gamecock was a running back with first round talent who found himself in NFL draft limbo because of two well-publicized knee injuries. There was talk that some teams had him off their draft boards altogether because of the fact that he would be probably be unable to contribute at all in 2013.
Draft picks are treated like gold in the NFL and for Lattimore to get selected, he needed to be paired with a team that was in a position to take a chance on a player who may or may not help them down the road.
The San Francisco 49ers found themselves in an enviable position.
Boasting an already loaded roster, the Niners came into the 2013 draft with 13 selections. By the end of the second round, they had filled their major need areas of safety, defensive line, and tight end. They could spend the rest of the draft making selections that projected to help them long-term, and that would include taking a chance on a player who may have more value in 2014 and beyond.
In the fourth round, with the 131st selection in the 2013 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers chose running back Marcus Lattimore out of South Carolina. It almost made too much sense.
To be clear, drafting Lattimore has nothing to do with this upcoming season, but everything to do with the future. The 49ers are coming to a crossroads with feature back Frank Gore. Regardless of how he performs, this could very well be his last season in red and gold. Gore will be 30 years old when camp opens and has a lot of tread on his tires. Including the playoffs, he’s carried the ball 2,003 times in his NFL career and he’s coming off of a season where he played 19 games with 321 total carries. The only other time Gore has eclipsed 300 carries in his career was in his second season in 2006 (312). He’s shown no signs of slowing down yet but a decline, at some point soon, is inevitable.
Even if Gore finds the fountain of youth and is his normal self, money will play a factor in his future as well. The 49ers have contract extensions looming with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and linebacker Aldon Smith. They would also like to extend guard Mike Iupati and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Paying just a franchise quarterback and a premier pass rusher alone will put a serious dent in the salary cap. Kaepernick and Smith could cost the 49ers up words of 30 million dollars per season combined. That means the team has to save money elsewhere and running back looks like a sensible spot to do it with Lattimore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James all coming with inexpensive price tags.
Looking at a future scenario that does not include Frank Gore makes the most sense for Lattimore. If his knees are healthy and he’s back to playing at a high level, he will find himself in a competition for carries with Hunter and James. Even if it takes some time for Lattimore to adjust to playing running back again he could split carries early on.
Over time, we may see that Hunter and James are best suited as role players who touch the ball five to 10 times a game. Both have excelled playing limited roles in the 49ers’ offense but it is unknown if they could do the same in a feature role. Lattimore, on the other hand, projects to be the kind of big time runner who could command the majority of the touches.
Consider that before he got injured in 2012, he scored 11 rushing touchdowns on just 143 carries. That’s a touchdown once every 13 times he was handed the football. For his career, he scored 38 touchdowns and gained 2,677 yards on the ground over 3 seasons for the Gamecocks. However, the only season that was not cut short by injury was his freshman campaign in 2010.
For all of the excitement and promise, there’s a chance all of this talk about Lattimore taking over for Gore could all be a moot point.
He’s had two major knee injuries and it’s possible he’ll never have the same explosiveness he once did. It’s possible that when he finally puts on pads again he’ll be so far removed from game action that he’ll never adjust to the speed of the NFL. It’s also possible he fully recovers and the 49ers got an absolute steal in the middle of the draft. Regardless of the outcome, San Francisco was the perfect spot for Lattimore to land. The 49ers’ depth at running back allows Lattimore to fully recover and not take the field until he’s ready. For an injured player with all the promise in the world, that’s quite an enviable position to be in.
Folow the author on Twitter @ninerscommunity
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