Will 49ers rookie running back Marcus Lattimore find his way onto the field in 2013?
In his three collegiate years with the Gamecocks, Lattimore emerged as one of the top running backs in the nation, earning a number of accolades, which included both SEC and Sporting News Freshman of the Year awards in 2010 and being named to the First-Team SEC as well as Second-Team All-American in the same year.
Over the course of his three seasons at South Carolina, Lattimore totaled 2,677 rushing yards on 555 attempts for 38 touchdowns. He also hauled in 74 receptions for 767 yards (sports-reference.com).
Yet paralleling his storied college career were a number of significant injuries that thwarted hopes of breaking into the NFL.
In 2011, Lattimore tore a knee ligament that forced him to miss the second half of the season. Then in 2012, Lattimore suffered another knee injury. This particular injury, which was much more gruesome than the first, was compared to the injuries sustained by former University of Miami and later NFL star running back Willis McGahee back in 2002.
The good news was that there was a high probability that Lattimore could recover from the injury and ligament damage and could eventually find himself playing at the NFL level. The bad news was that he would have to undergo surgery to repair the knee and then insert himself in a rigorous rehabilitation and recovery process.
In addition, Lattimore's draft stock took a hit. Realizing that most teams would not expect him to make an immediate contribution his rookie year, Lattimore draft projection fell from possibly a first-round pick to the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, according to CBS Sports.
However, Lattimore's talents, when he was healthy, were too much for teams to overlook entirely. He was going to be drafted. It was just a matter of which team wanted to take the shot and when.
That team turned out to be the San Francisco 49ers.
San Francisco elected to draft Lattimore in the fourth round with the 131st overall pick. In a way, going to the 49ers was perhaps the biggest blessing for Lattimore. San Francisco was not in immediate need for a running back. The team already employed Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore as their no-doubt starter along with credible backups LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter. Lattimore could simply be viewed as a long-term replacement and heir apparent to the aging Gore.
An additional benefit for Lattimore was the fact that he would be a direct understudy of Gore who also endured a similar path to NFL greatness.
Gore's collegiate career was similarly hampered by a number of injuries that eventually felled his draft stock back in 2005. When he was drafted in the third round that year, Gore did everything in his power to ensure that he would become a star back.
Lattimore now hopes to emulate that success and Gore has taken him under his wing.
As reported by Jarrett Bell of USA Today, Lattimore and Gore are almost literally "joined at the knee," and Gore was one of the first people to give Lattimore a phone call when the 49ers drafted him.
The talent-rich, defending NFC champions, who entered draft with an NFL-high 13 picks, could afford to take a gamble and wait on Lattimore's recovery. Lattimore says that in his case, the support and inspiration from Gore has provided a boost. (usatoday.com)
The fact that Lattimore does not need to contribute immediately on the 49ers offense is a good thing for the young running back. Instead, he can focus his time on the rehabilitation process and work on improving his leg strength over his rookie season.
Initially, Lattimore did not feel as optimistic about the situation, but thankfully Gore assisted him with encouragement. Lattimore later stated:
Right after it happened, I doubted myself and I lost hope. But one of my good friends came over, I got a chance to talk to Gore, I got a chance to talk to McGahee, and I realized God doesn't make mistakes. He did everything for a reason and he put me in this situation. Now I'm with the 49ers. It's just a great, great situation for me. [Gore] just told me to keep that positive mind-set, and that's what I've been doing these past five, six months. And I feel like that's why I'm doing so great with my rehab. (via usatoday.com)
Indeed, Lattimore's recovery may be pushing further along than anyone may have ever hoped. Even before he was drafted, Lattimore was hard at work trying to recover and informed the press that the NFL would be shocked by his efforts to get back on the field. According to CBS Sports writer Larry Hartstein, Lattimore's recovery prospects could even result in him playing in 2013.
At times, it seemed like Lattimore could make that goal. His rehabilitation appeared much further ahead of schedule and the young running back was making progress beyond anyone's distant hopes. James Andrews, the doctor who operated on Lattimore's knee and who has overseen his recovery, had often been forced to slow down Lattimore's rehabilitation.
Andrews commented:e as far along as we ever expected him to be. He's so self-motivated. This weight he's put on has been all muscle, which is absolutely impossible in most cases. We've had to slow him down in certain activities because he'd get ahead of us. He's one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to help take care of. He's twice as far along as we ever expected him to be. He's so self-motivated. This weight he's put on has been all muscle, which is absolutely impossible in most cases. We've had to slow him down in certain activities because he'd get ahead of us. He's one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to help take care of. (via usatoday.com)He's twice as far along as we ever expected him to be. He's so self-motivated. This weight he's put on has been all muscle, which is absolutely impossible in most cases. We've had to slow him down in certain activities because he'd get ahead of us. He's one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to help take care of. (via usatoday.com)
He's twice as far along as we ever expected him to be. He's so self-motivated. This weight he's put on has been all muscle, which is absolutely impossible in most cases. We've had to slow him down in certain activities because he'd get ahead of us. He's one of the finest young men I've ever had the opportunity to help take care of. (via usatoday.com)
Yet the 49ers are not in that much of a rush to get Lattimore out on the field right away.
As previously stated, San Francisco already has three talented running backs with Gore at the top of the depth chart. While Lattimore is clearly eager to get out on the field and make contributions as soon as he can, rushing the process may do more harm than good. Thankfully, the 49ers do not have the need to rely on Lattimore.
At least not yet.
Instead, Lattimore will likely start the 2013 season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. As described by James Brady of SB Nation, Lattimore will miss this year's training camp and will be required to sit out the first six weeks of the regular season, according to PUP regulations.
Lattimore has been patient with the team's approach and recognizes the fact that the recovery is going to be long and arduous. In a recent interview at the NFL's Rookie Symposium, Lattimore said:
You know, we come back in late July. Been running sprints, you know, got a chance to get in there with the guys a little bit, that felt good. Probably won't do training camp. You know, just on course with the trainer and my doctor. Get a chance to practice midseason and see what happens. (via nfl.com)
That leaves one option for Lattimore between now and the moment he is eligible to return: hard rehabilitation.
Fortunately, this is something he is embracing. In a recent commercial shoot for Under Armour, described by Fansided writer Seth Forrester, Lattimore displayed plenty of the footwork and showed signs that his leg is looking as strong as ever.
This is good news for Lattimore and the 49ers. Yet it does not mean that he will get on the field any time soon. Instead, it is likely that he would practice with the team no earlier than the middle of the regular season. Even so, Lattimore may not wind up playing in 2013 at all.
San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh was quick to point this out and stated in a recent interview. "If he doesn't play this year, he doesn't play this year," Harbaigh said via USA Today. "But I think if there's anyone who can overcome what he's been through, it's him."
Harbaugh said that he admires the aggressive mental approach that Lattimore had carried throughout his rehab, but added, "We're going to slow things down for him, physically."
Still, there are plenty of "what-ifs" that the 49ers may be asking.
Gore, now 30 years old, is likely in the last few years of his career. After all, how many running backs are still effective into their 30s? While Gore may still have a good year or two left in him, there is a legitimate possibility that he starts to slow down in 2013, despite the fact that Gore does not think it will happen.
While James and Hunter may serve as decent backups, would either of them have any chance at supplanting Gore? Brady of SB Nation does not think so. He writes:
San Francisco likely considered Lattimore the future feature running back for their offense, provided he can make a full recovery. Gore is that guy right now, and there are two other young guns behind him in Hunter and James, but neither of those running backs seem capable of providing the production that Gore does. Lattimore might. (sbnation.com)
If the unthinkable happens and Gore drastically falls off in production this year, Lattimore's NFL debut may come sooner than initially projected. If the possible happens and Gore winds up with any sort of significant injury, Lattimore could also be rushed onto the field.
In either scenario, Lattimore would probably not carry the bulk of duties at the position. Instead, it is likely that either James or Hunter would be the primary back in Gore's absence, with Lattimore being relegated to a reserve or part-time role.
San Francisco has to Lattimore an investment for the future at this point. Considering the injuries and recovery, along with the 49ers' reliance on Gore for at least one more good season, Lattimore has little reason to push his debut earlier.
Regardless, Lattimore was a steal for San Francisco in this draft. The team does not need to rush his recovery. There is no need for a rookie running back to make an immediate contribution this year.
iSports Web writer Cesar Mondragon describes this perfectly by writing:
The same questions raised about Gore are now being brought up about Lattimore, but if the 49ers are smart and patient there is no reason why Lattimore can’t accomplish the same level of success that Gore was able to achieve. With Gore, James, Hunter already in the backfield there is doubt that Lattimore will even get a chance to play this upcoming season. Smart move if you’re the 49ers. Let the kid get to 100 percent first and soon he can prove that the 49ers ended up with the steal of the 2013 draft. (isportsweb.com)
In all likelihood, that is exactly how Lattimore's rookie season will pan out. He will continue his rehabilitation process, and will also continue to receive advice and tutelage from Gore, who has emerged as possibly the best mentor Lattimore could ever have. In addition, Lattimore will be able to further his understanding of the NFL and San Francisco's offensive game.
That is the best case scenario and the 49ers' investment should hopefully provide tremendous dividends in years to come.
In the meantime, 49er fans can sit back and enjoy Gore's final years as the team moves toward their eventual goal of another Super Bowl championship. Those fans can also know that they have a very special running back waiting to get his turn very soon.
There is little doubt that Lattimore will be that special. Perhaps the adversity that nearly derailed Lattimore's career will wind up being a boon and a blessing in coming years.
It will not happen in 2013, but the sky is the limit as far as the rookie running back is concerned.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist writing for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.