The San Francisco 49ers are an organization that persistently voices the “one day at a time” approach. Time and time again, Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke insist that this is an organization that takes things in stride and is wary of getting ahead of itself.
However, in the 2013 NFL draft, the 49ers indisputably revealed that they do indeed plan for the long-term.
In the fourth round, San Francisco made serious waves when it selected South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore. From a talent perspective, the 49ers added one of the most gifted players in the draft.
The hitch is that Lattimore is being drafted into a team strength that will not have a legitimate availability for at least one more season. Coincidentally, that is roughly when their fourth-rounder will be 100 percent again.
With all of the interacting variables, it begs the question: Is Marcus Lattimore the heir apparent to Frank Gore in San Francisco?
The NCAA Career
Coming out of high school in South Carolina, Lattimore was the No. 1 ranked player at his position and the No. 10 overall prospect in the nation (h/t Rivals). At every level he has ever performed, he has been the dominant player on the field.
Before officially committing to the Gamecocks, the highly recruited Lattimore would field offers from Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, Oregon and Penn State.
The only team missing here is LSU.
All of the big schools wanted a piece of Lattimore, but the 5-star recruit decided to remain in state.
In his first and most prolific season with South Carolina, Lattimore would end up leading the NCAA in yards from scrimmage as a freshman (1,609 in 2010). As an all-purpose threat, he would score 19 touchdowns for the team that season.
This changed the way the Gamecocks played football.
With a thoroughbred like Lattimore in the stable, South Carolina wanted to emphasize the ground attack. And during his time with the team, he would establish himself as one of the most complete, dynamic runners in the college ranks.
During his reign (2010-2012), there was not a better finishing running back in the NCAA.
The measurables are not off the charts, but his vision and ability to set up runs was unparalleled. He demonstrated an intrinsic ability to locate and hit his lanes and was able to follow up by responding well to the initial contact.
Whether it was a linebacker or safety coming up to fill the hole, Lattimore would drop the shoulder and turn up the torque.
He runs with such power that he simply out-wills contesting defenders. It is reflective of his huge heart and character off the field, which no doubt impressed the 49ers front office brass.
And in Round 4, San Francisco was able to claim one of the most decorated players in the country:
- All-SEC second-team (2011)
- All-America second-team (2010)
- All-SEC first-team (2010)
- Freshman of the Year, via Sporting News (2010)
- SEC Freshman of the Year, via AP (2010)
- High School All-American, via USA Today (2009)
- South Carolina Mr. Football (2009)
- HS Junior of the Year, via ESPN RISE (2008)
Although injuries greatly limited his time, Lattimore finished his collegiate career averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
In October of 2011, Lattimore tore his ACL against Mississippi State, which caused him to miss the remainder of the season. He was averaging 5.0 yards per carry up until the point of his injury, which remains a career-best.
In his comeback season the following year, Lattimore looked to be back in top form, rushing for 110 yards and two scores in his first game back. He would play in nine games before suffering a horrific knee injury against Tennessee.
In a freak occurrence, Lattimore would tear four of five ligaments in his right knee.
The injury was immediately compared to the one suffered by then-University of Miami tailback Willis McGahee in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. McGahee, now a 10-year pro, tore his ACL, PCL and MCL in a single instance (h/t CBS Sports).
McGahee’s teammate, Frank Gore, also suffered an ACL tear in his collegiate career but overcame that injury to become the all-time leading rusher for the San Francisco 49ers. An injury once deemed a “career-ender” is now conquerable with the advancements in medical technology.
With that in mind, Lattimore is one of the best running back prospects to emerge in the NFL draft in a few years. Minus the injury history, he might’ve received legitimate comparisons to All-Pro RB Adrian Peterson, who coincidentally also overcame a frightening ACL injury recently.
Here is the scouting report on Lattimore, via CBS Sports:
Outstanding burst and balance to stay on his feet through contact. Strong finisher, lowering his pads and continuing to pump his legs.
Very good at keeping defenders off balance, showing excellent acceleration, anticipation and footwork. Natural balance and feel between the tackles with good vision and patience to follow his blocks. Reliable receiving target, adjusting well to the ball with good focus.
Never goes down easy and rarely goes out of bounds, running with toughness and confidence. Good effort in pass protection and not shy about giving up his body. Taking better care of himself off-the-field with improved practice habits and stronger work ethic.
Lattimore in San Francisco
The 49ers are very clever here.
They understand they are going to have to replace Frank Gore sooner rather than later, and they respond by bringing in an elite prospect who physically needs time to re-acclimate to the game.
With the depth of this roster, the 49ers are in a position to red-shirt their rookies, which they proved last year with rookie first-rounder A.J. Jenkins. The Niners have considerably less capital invested in Lattimore, so the team has no concern over him watching 2013 from the sidelines.
Alongside Gore, the 49ers have Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon returning to action. The running back situation is awfully healthy, as San Francisco boasts several capable ball-carriers.
Like Jenkins and James in 2012, Lattimore will be relegated to an understudy role.
Since Harbaugh’s arrival, the 49ers have been covertly building an unstoppable run game for the future. In three consecutive drafts from 2011-2013, San Francisco has selected three high-profile tailbacks.
In Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore, the 49ers added a trifecta of explosive college runners. Each brings a unique style to the game, and each was incredibly productive at the NCAA level.
The 49ers have done this by finding value outside of Round 1.
This month Trent Baalke provided pre-draft insight on San Francisco’s philosophy when it comes to the ground attack (h/t CSN Bay Area):
I'm a big believer—we are big believers—in a three-headed approach. In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day.
So while they like to play things close to the chest, it’s now clear to see what they’ve been building offensively. After bringing in two complementary backs for Gore (Hunter and James), the 49ers finally landed the next front man.
At 5’11”, 221 pounds, Lattimore has the size that Hunter and James lack.
As Baalke indicated, they like their backs to bring different styles to the field because it complicates defensive responses. Lattimore is the big bruising finisher-type who will soften up the opposition for the quick and explosive duo behind him.
There has not been a backfield in the league with this high of a ceiling for some time.
In fact, it draw comparisons to the college ranks, most notably the 2001 Miami Hurricanes backfield that featured a trio made of Willis McGahee, Frank Gore and Clinton Portis.
In a lot of ways, for Frank Gore to exit, this is the grandest compliment: That it takes three men to replace him.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' lead columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.