Which NFL team is going to gamble on former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore?
The NFL draft is, at its very core, a gamble. There's no avoiding it. "Safe" picks like Aaron Curry, Robert Gallery and Courtney Brown turn out to be busts, and millions are spent on players each year by teams that wish they could take a mulligan.
For most prospects, it's simply a question of whether a team's scouts are right about a player they like or if that team's coaching staff sees a potential fit for that player. For other players, however, intrinsic risk is added: Character red flags, position changes and injury issues can all force otherwise talented players down a draft board.
Lattimore fits in that last category, as he recovers from a horrific knee injury. Whatever risk he or any player would carry is certainly magnified due to the severity of that injury.
So, what would your team be getting if it selected Lattimore this upcoming April?
Can Lattimore Even Play?
When Lattimore went down on October 27 of last year, he dislocated his knee and damaged multiple ligaments. According to Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated: "Doctors originally set a timetable of 12-15 months for recovery, meaning Lattimore probably wouldn't play football in 2013."
Thankfully, Lattimore did not have nerve damage in his knee or he may have never played football again. As horrific as the injury was, another millimeter in either direction could've caused that nerve damage, a more significant ligament tear or broken bones.
Oh, let's not forget that Lattimore also tore his ACL the year before. This isn't just "injury history"; this is the worst injury history possible for a running back prospect.
B/R's own resident medical expert, Dave Siebert, gave us the breakdown on whether Lattimore can return to what he once was:
As Lattimore progresses through his rehab, his reconstructed ligaments will become stronger and stronger. In addition to his individual healing ability, how strong his ligaments become relies heavily on the successful completion of his rehab. If all goes well, he could theoretically return to top form, and nothing yet suggests that he is not already on that path.
While it's impossible to just forget about the injuries, it's possible that it may end up less big to Lattimore's NFL chances than many of us thought. Still, whoever drafts Lattimore will be getting a player who may have a lot of tread worn off of his talented tires.
Yeah, but Lattimore Plays Running Back
Feature running backs are a dying breed in the NFL. 2013 might be no different as many expect the first round to be devoid of running backs. Eddie Lacy from Alabama has a chance, and (at one time) Lattimore was thought to be in the discussion, but the former could easily slip to the second round and the latter might not hear his name before the third day.
Passing percentages have been on the rise for a decade as teams spread out opposing defenses with multiple-receiver packages. Gone are powerful backs in favor of the Wes Welkers and Danny Amendolas, who now rule the NFL.
Some teams that utilize the zone-blocking scheme—such as Houston with Arian Foster (undrafted) and Washington with Alfred Morris (sixth round)—have found success running the ball, and this has helped devalue the running back position. Specialization has had an impact too. Teams can use three (or more) different backs in specialized roles and eschew the need for one do-it-all stud.
So, whoever ends up with Lattimore ends up with, first and foremost, a running back. That means the value he has to teams will be inherent to the value that team places on the position. That value affects not only where he is drafted but also what his role is when he arrives there.
Speed and Agility over Skills to Pay the Bills
The first video I watched of Lattimore for this article was a cut-up done by Aaron Aloysius for Draft Breakdown. Lattimore tore up the Missouri Tigers for 85 yards and two touchdowns before taking a seat because his services were no longer needed in the 31-10 rout.
This is the first run of the game, Lattimore found the edge and burst through the line as if the Missouri defenders were standing still. They might as well have been.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders puts a lot of stock into "Speed Score" (paid link), which is a way they have developed to measure not only speed, but speed in relation to a running back's size. While few people would say Brandon Jacobs (123.5 speed score) is faster than LaMichael James (98.9), the relative sizes of the two lend some credence to Jacob's speed being more valuable.
Lattimore's speed score (assuming he could manage the same 4.5 he ran before his sophomore season) would be 107.8. That score is better than backs in last year's draft class, such as Doug Martin, David Wilson and Morris. His size (5'11", 221 pounds) could not be any more prototypical, and the speed he brings along with it is impressive.
It isn't just speed to the edge that Lattimore provides. In fact, if that is what a team is looking for, Lattimore might not be the best option. However, if a team is looking for stop-and-start ability and tenacity to hit the hole, he can certainly provide those elements.
On Lattimore's first touchdown of this same Missouri game, he made a quick cut in the backfield and rampaged into the hole, running over defenders as he fell forward into the end zone.
No one is going to mistake Lattimore (even on his best day) for Darren Sproles, but he is not just a one-cut runner. He has plenty of speed, agility, footwork, balance and open-field running ability—the skills that can transform a good running back prospect into a great NFL back.
Power and Poise
Here, I've shown where Lattimore first made contact with defenders. (Note: He ends up getting the first down.)
CBS Sports wrote that Lattimore: "Never goes down easy and rarely goes out of bounds, running with toughness and confidence," while B/R's Matt Miller compared Lattimore's running style to a pretty talented NFL back, Adrian Peterson:
NFL teams will have Peterson in mind when they see Lattimore's powerful running style and all-around ability, and Lattimore will hope that they have Peterson's knee in mind when they are considering where to draft him.
The former Gamecock running back showcased his combination of power and speed the moment he stepped onto the Columbia, SC, campus. However, the poise he added as his college career wore on adds a ton of value to whatever NFL team brings him on board.
He has fantastic vision on both power- and zone-running plays and seems to understand when to run through tackles and when to run around them. He's improved as a pass-blocker—utilizing both cut blocks and face-up blocks to protect his quarterback. He has also improved as a receiver, although he'll likely be limited to a standard running back route tree.
If healthy, Lattimore would be the top running back in the 2013 NFL draft class and would've warranted first-round consideration. In terms of recent top running back prospects, Lattimore isn't as talented as Trent Richardson (2012). But he is equal to or better than Mark Ingram (2011), more well-rounded than C.J. Spiller (2010) and Jahvid Best (2010) and is clearly better than Ryan Mathews (2010) and Knowshon Moreno (2009).
It is too early to know how much Lattimore will be able to contribute in 2013, but depending on the team that drafts him, he should be ready to make an incredible impact in his "sophomore" season. There is little reason to believe he couldn't eventually be one a top-10 running back and a legitimate All-Pro player if he manages to stay healthy.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.