The moment the ball deflected off the fingertips of Seattle Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman into the outstretched arms of teammate Malcolm Smith in the last remaining seconds of the NFC title, talk regarding the San Francisco 49ers’ window to win a world championship began to swirl.
Frankly, this is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction considering the team just landed its franchise quarterback as well as the NFL’s most exciting pass-rusher. Stocking up on bench talent and draft picks, the 49ers have also established their own in-house farm system, which is manned by a topnotch scouting department.
Not to mention the obvious, which is the fact that most of their starters are still in their 20s, including several at key positions. And they've led the NFL in Pro Bowl voting for three years running.
But hey, to each his own.
If you trace the root of this proverbial “window” talk—outside the upcoming mega-sized contract for Colin Kaepernick—it’s closely related to the careers of defensive tackle Justin Smith and running back Frank Gore, which are winding down. That’s an argument that deserves its own retort.
But when they come to the end of the road, most of are of the firm belief that they’re irreplaceable, which may be true (at least in spirit).
But on the field, the Niners are shooting for equal or better results. With a very calculated strategy that would span over multiple seasons, San Francisco would properly address two of the most important positions on the team, ensuring that window stayed open beyond coach Jim Harbaugh's first few seasons.
And this project is already underway.
Meet the understudies and eventual successors of Justin Smith and Frank Gore in Florida State’s Cornellius “Tank” Carradine and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore: two top prospects drafted and redshirted by the 49ers in 2013 who will be ready to begin carving out roles for themselves on this club this coming year.
Cornellius Carradine: The NFL’s Next Hybrid 3-4 End?
Part I: Road to the Lineup
Can’t say there were any shortage of skeptics when the 49ers selected an injured player at No. 40 overall in 2013 draft—one who had as short an NCAA career as any—and then could not play as a rookie. The manner of his debut was even worse, mostly because there was a lot to be alarmed with.
And obviously, outsiders weren’t kept in the loop regarding his status throughout the year. People saw Carradine begin the season on the non-football injury list as expected, then get activated for practices toward the end of the season, only to be injured reserved for the remainder of the year.
Many found this to be discouraging or indicative of Carradine’s potential or even his inability to recover from his injury.
This is false.
The reason Carradine didn’t play in 2014 was because the rehab for his late November ACL tear was expedited so he could participate in the draft process a bit more. They cut corners so Carradine could showcase his skills for scouts, which led the 49ers to restart his rehab when he arrived.
On top of which, this was a player who was looking to switch schemes, transitioning from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 defensive end. And even on top of that, this is still a raw player making the leap from college to the NFL. The highest level Carradine competed at just three years ago was junior college ball.
This was all confirmed by general manager Trent Baalke, who expressed his concerns, via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
He missed a lot of football, and for a rookie that complicates things a little bit because he doesn’t have all the techniques. If you remember the system he played at Florida State, hand in the dirt, outside edges, playing fast up-field, it’s a different style than we play. So there is going to be a learning curve for Tank.
The whole situation makes a lot more sense when you take into consideration all the things sidetracking his road to the active game-day roster.
It was quite a bit.
Nevertheless, this is a hump the 49ers will be over this season.
With his rookie workload being 95 percent mental—and since he was activated for a few weeks and got in a number of practices during the regular season—Carradine already has a degree of NFL experience under his belt. And by the end of OTAs this year, he should be much further along.
In fact, this might make Carradine the most intriguing player to watch in 2014 training camp because of what he is.
Part II: Player Projection
In 2012, his final season which was cut short by injury (11 games), Tank Carradine led the Florida State program in tackles with 80—as a defensive end. Let that sink in.
He’s a rangy tracker who consistently shows good hustle and pursuit to the ball.
But what really stood out were the sack numbers and his constant presence in the backfield. Generally, No. 91 was the most disruptive player on the roster. In 24 career games with the Noles, Carradine had 16.5 sacks, 11.0 of which came in his brief stint as a starter in 2012.
He averaged 1.0 per game as a senior.
In the offseason, when I spoke with 49ers beat reporter Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area about rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier, who was hyped as a sack artist, he said, “It’s interesting, if you look at what translates from college football to pro football; if you can rush the passer, you can rush the passer.”
While we were discussing a different player, the philosophy remains the same.
Case in point: J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith, Von Miller and Robert Quinn are a few of the finest in the entire league, all of whom are 24 years old or younger. These guys all showed up from Day 1.
And this also proved to be true for those who watched Lemonier this year, who flashed in the limited reps he received.
It’s a skill set that translates right away.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s why linebacker Aaron Maybin never really developed or caught his stride like three different pro teams thought he might. You can either do it or you can’t. The 25-year-old Maybin, who was the Buffalo Bills’ No. 11 overall pick in 2009, now plays for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, so NFL teams are figuring that trend out.
Furthermore, there’s no denying Carradine’s inherent pass-rush ability. That’s what made him such a highly coveted prospect, despite the inexperience.
He was top five in sacks his only two years in the ACC and would’ve likely finished first as a senior had he not missed the last three games of the season. Injury aside, Bleacher Report’s draft guru Matt Miller even had him as a top-five pick, ahead of every other pass-rusher in the 2013, which included LSU's Barkevious Mingo, Oregon's Dion Jordan and BYU's Ziggy Ansah.
Countless other draft experts pegged him as a high first-rounder.
This is the book on Carradine, per CBS Draft analyst Dane Brugler:
- Good-looking athlete with agile feet and very good closing speed.
- Natural bend and flexibility around the edge with smooth lateral quickness and redirection skills.
- Quick in pursuit to force the issue and has the athleticism to recover from a false step.
- Very good footwork to sidestep blockers to flatten and close on the pocket.
- Shows fluid movements and short-area burst, but also rangy.
- Active hands and limbs to swat and stay balanced through contact.
- Reliable in the open field, using his length to wrap and discipline to not sell out.
- Accurate recognition skills.
- Improved hand use to rip and tear, keeping low pad level through the process.
- Hungry player and his effort doesn't waver, going hard for all four quarters and rarely taking a play off.
The idea with Carradine is that they’ll take a big nimble freak who can speed and bull rush, tack on 10 pounds to his frame and make him a hybrid attacker who can play in both the base- and sub-packages.
He’ll still be able to rush the quarterback but can also set the edge and stuff the run like Justin Smith does. Though it was slightly under the radar, Baalke confirmed the intent for Carradine to make the transition to 3-4 end after the draft, via the team's official website:
We think he has the frame to do that. Ray [McDonald] was, like I said, Ray was a little shorter and a little lighter than tank at the same stage coming out. And Ray carries 290 pretty easily and very comfortable at it. We definitely think there is room for growth.
It’s imperative that Carradine successfully makes this transition for the integrity of the 49ers defense, which relies on Justin Smith, who is entering a contract year and will be 35 years old for the 2014 season opener.
Over these past few seasons, Smith has been the top-rated 3-4 end when it comes to pass-rush productivity, per Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus. Out of the 1,592 pass-rush snaps he had in a three-year span from 2010-2012, he had an efficiency rate of 9.16 percent, which was tops.
And as you can see, the 49ers need their 3-4 ends to pass rush—not so much from their nose tackles and inside linebackers:
Most coaches outside the organization—especially ones who have competed against this defense—would point to Justin Smith before they’d point to All-Pro inside linebackers Patrick Willis or NaVorro Bowman as the soul of the 49ers defense.
And they'd be right. Smith makes it all work because he’s a dominant, multifaceted player at a position that he, in part, revolutionized.
He can attack in a litany of ways, either going for the ball himself or enabling defenders around him to make plays.
His transition from a 4-3 end in Cincinnati to 3-4 end in San Francisco opened some eyes to those who remember how big and athletic he was before the draft. So, lumping Carradine in with that mold of defender, here is a comparison of his physical jumping-off point entering training camp this season:
|The NFL's Ideal 3-4 Defensive End (Pre-Draft Measurables)|
|J.J. Watt||6'5"||290 lbs.||4.84|
|Justin Smith||6'4"||267 lbs.||4.64|
|Tank Carradine||6'4"||276 lbs.||4.75|
|NFL Draft Scout|
And believe it or not, Carradine is actually bigger and stronger than Justin Smith was coming out in 2001, posting 32 reps on the bench to Smith’s 26 and weighs 10 pounds more. He is also nearly a whole 10th of a second faster than Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Physically, Carradine presents the 49ers with an almost limitless ceiling.
It’s also worth noting that safeties, tight ends and wide receivers, etc., all add weight when making the transition to the NFL and don’t typically lose speed or versatility. Carradine can and probably will work to get up to 285 pounds, which is Smith’s current playing weight.
Putting on a healthy 10 pounds in the offseason and bulking up to play 3-4 end, while still possessing the natural bend and pass-rush moves, will make him a defensive weapon. And of course, the point of adding the extra size in the first place is so he can be more dominant at the NFL, while also executing the nuances as a block absorber like No. 94 does.
Over time, maybe Carradine succeeds Smith at right defensive end.
Because, obviously as the public knows, the 49ers have continued to hit on pass-rushers and defensive linemen in the draft. They know exactly what to look for when it comes to building and developing a front seven (whereas they’ve had trouble at, say, wide receiver).
Defensively, there is an understanding of what qualities translate well, which ones don’t and what players can do within their system.
So there’s reason to be confident about a player like this, even though a lot of people have written the pick off or forgotten about it altogether. The reality is Tank Carradine is arguably the most talented and unique defensive player they’ve invested in under the new regime.
Look for him to make a name for himself as an upfield rusher in 2014, while crafting his technique as a 3-4 end.
Marcus Lattimore: The Next Franchise Back in San Francisco?
Part I: The South Carolina Phenom
Finding an adequate stand-in for running back Frank Gore, the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, always felt like a no-win situation. How do you say goodbye to an icon?
No player will ever be able to duplicate or supplement the time and effort he gave to the franchise, under those circumstances, yielding that kind of production. Years from now, there will be a period of time that people will recall as the “Frank Gore era” in San Francisco, which will forever be known as a phenomenal success story marked by miles of adversity.
So aside from his numbers (he's sniffing 10,000 career rushing yards by the way), Gore’s become a symbol in the Bay Area.
Who could fill that role?
For their power offense, the Niners needed to acquire a runner as magnetizing and physically supreme in a day and age where feature backs are emphasized less and less. It was a tall order. Though, in 2013, San Francisco had a rare opportunity float its way in South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore.
This was a pairing predicted by many. Fans of both the college and pro levels could see the stars aligning months before the 2013 NFL draft.
As most know, Lattimore has a similar story as Gore and like Carradine would’ve been a first-rounder in this past draft had it not been for the ACL tear. And the 49ers, with few available roster spots, a litany of draft picks and a compatible system, were front-runners for Lattimore.
Also, with his talent, his character and his story, it all contributes to him being a likable player who you can build a franchise around. The Niners try to select players like this at every position, even tagging them as their "gold-helmet guys."
It's safe to say that's what Marcus Lattimore was.
All told, this is an individual with a world of upside if he can complete his recovery and stay healthy.
In Jim Harbaugh’s final presser of the year, the 49ers head coach confirmed that the highly polarizing, extremely gifted Lattimore would be full go by OTAs. This was like this first beam of light shining through the dark clouds that have settled in an overcast San Francisco following the NFC title loss.
It was also an incredible step forward for a player who suffered two major knee injuries in consecutive years, tearing and rehabbing four total ligaments.
Miraculously, there was no nerve damage.
It’s hard to say where it goes from here, but it seems he’s been unchained. One thing we do know is if he’s healthy enough to play out a season—even as part of a committee—Lattimore can impact this offense in 2014.
He doesn’t know how to do anything else but be productive.
For the first time in a long time, the 49ers will add another feature-type back to their stable, and by all intents and purposes, he will be Gore’s long-term replacement. He is specifically designed for the job. Here is the pre-draft write-up on Lattimore, courtesy of Gil Brandt of 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 tackle with good vision and patience to follow his blocks.
- Reliable receiving target.
- 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.
Stylistically, Lattimore is a one-cut runner. This is a confident back who takes that handoff, plants that right foot in the ground and cuts upfield.
It’s a no-nonsense approach when he’s toting the ball. It’s easy to see, when he’s on the field, he’s also outwitting the defenders in front of him, shaking them to the ground with deliberate movements of his head, feet and shoulders. Lattimore aims to strike the defense before they strike him.
And even though he’s always a threat to break a run, it’s not like a tap-dancing scat back where he’s a danger to lose yards.
No, Lattimore sees the field extremely well, and as Brandt mentioned in his draft analysis, complements that with good acceleration and by finishing runs. These tools made him one of the nation’s most dynamic runners over a three-year stretch at South Carolina, even against the better college defenses.
In 29 career games with the Gamecocks, he broke 150-plus yards rushing six times. He averaged 4.8 yards on the ground in his career, scored 38 rushing TDs and had 3,444 yards from scrimmage. That’s implausible production in such a short window. His 41 career touchdowns were also school record.
And it’s not like South Carolina is known for its slouches on offense.
In his debut in 2010, Lattimore was third in the SEC in rushing yards (1,197) and first in yards from scrimmage (1,609). And if you combine his two best games versus Florida and Navy, he accounted for 514 total yards and six touchdowns. When he’s on his game, it’s filthy.
All in all, Marcus Lattimore is built like a Diet Coke version of Darren McFadden; he runs like Emmitt Smith and has a heart like Frank Gore.
Part II: The Return of the West Coast Offense
Much has been said about his ability as a featured runner, but if there’s one unique element Marcus Lattimore can offer to this offense right away, it’s a receiving outlet at the running back position. With his height (5’11”), he puts another long body on the field and one that is visible.
What we’re getting is, for a quarterback, Colin Kaepernick’s underneath accuracy isn’t all that.
So when he’s trying to throw it to backs like Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, who are 5’8” or shorter, or a vet like Frank Gore, who generally plays low, it can be easy to miss guys or hesitate to make a careful drop shot in short range when linebackers are lurking.
It’s a part of Kap’s game that lacks.
The confidence doesn’t appear to be there as much, and making one of those throws to a miniature back can be like trying to get a ping-pong ball on a milk bottle at your local circus. It’s hit or miss, so more often than not, Kap probably figures he might as well try the deep ball since it’s his forte, and it has more upside.
Already, it looks like Kaepernick has given up on looking underneath. And he shouldn’t because sometimes a quarterback needs to take what the defense gives him.
As Kaepernick grows in the system and gains experience, he may take to the checkdown. There’s a good chance Lattimore expedites that process. We may see the comfort level that Kap has with fullback Bruce Miller in Lattimore because of the size and likeness to a receiver.
In a lot of ways, Lattimore is that same safety valve.
The bigger body and assurance that he’ll beat the defender to the ball may make the difference for Kaepernick, in comparison to Hunter and James.
There’s a chance he’ll inspire confidence in the quarterback. And with that set of hands paired with his run-after-catch ability, expect Kaepernick to go back to that well more and more. Lattimore has proven himself to be a dependable player there, plucking the football out of the air and running hard.
He has the focus and natural instinct to adjust to the ball and secure it before turning up the field.
At South Carolina, Lattimore had 25-plus receptions in two of his three seasons and had three receiving touchdowns (10.4 YPC). He left SC with 767 receiving yards, which isn’t too shabby given how brief a stint it was.
This could open up on the offense because it presents a new threat.
Look for the 49ers to not only have a dependable checkdown, but to further weaponize the backfield while presenting a threat to attack the underneath part of the field. This would be more of a traditional West Coast attack, which could be more fluid and diverse than we’ve seen in the past two seasons.