The San Francisco 49ers offense will be a lot better next season. This isn't the usual empty optimism that gets floated around whenever a team suffers another heartbreaking ending to an otherwise terrific season.
Just look at the facts. Michael Crabtree will be back at full throttle. Quinton Patton will be a big improvement over Mario Manningham. Colin Kaepernick might have finally learned to look around for open receivers, and, if me and my compatriots, Tom Smeaton and Joseph Akeley, get our way, we might even see Mike Evans tearing apart opposing secondaries downfield.
But the main engine of the offense remains in the backfield, and it's going to get even more dangerous if Marcus Lattimore is everything the 49ers believed when they selected him with the 131st pick in the 2013 draft.
Lattimore is essentially Marshawn Lynch without the nasty candy and the overhyped nickname: A physical, bruising running back adept at finding holes and plowing through human obstacles. He dominated the SEC during his three years at South Carolina and was in Adrian Peterson territory before injuring his knee in what would be the final game of his college career.
The big question in everyone's minds: Will Lattimore ever be the same back he was before that horrific play which parents probably show their children to discourage them from ever playing football?
The signs point to yes.
Like everyone is now compelled to point out in any discussion regarding an ACL injury, Adrian Peterson came back from tearing his ACL in six months and went on to win the MVP the next season.
The difference is that Lattimore tore his ACL, PCL and dislocated his knee. He also tore the ACL in his other knee during his sophomore year, which may raise durability concerns regarding his future as an NFL running back.
Still, it's unfair to label Lattimore an injury-prone player because of his misfortunes in college. Aside from the mutant Wolverine, this could have happened to anyone. This wasn't Derrick Rose crumpling on the floor after a routine jump shot. It wasn't Reggie Wayne writhing on the ground following an incomplete pass. We all saw the play. And we try to forget what we saw every time.
Just as no one questioned NaVorro Bowman's mental and physical toughness after he left the NFC Championship Game on a cart, no one should even believe for a second that Lattimore is this fragile athlete incapable of absorbing the hits that come with being an NFL running back.
Sure, there are times he's going to get knocked down and be a little slow getting up. That's the risk of playing this game. He knows it, and he's not afraid of the dangers that come with manning one of the most brutal positions on the field.
Lattimore certainly believes he can be 100 percent ready at the start of the 2014 season, even going as far to say that he would have been available this year had the 49ers needed any extra depth in the backfield.
They did, as anything beyond Frank Gore's 14 rushing yards might have led to a different outcome in the NFC Championship Game. Gore also underperformed against the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs, signaling the passing of the torch to someone other than diminutive players like Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
Despite injuries to both knees, Lattimore has both youth and energy on his side. Under the watchful eye of Tom Rathman, the 22-year-old is slowly learning the 49ers offense and may become an immediate contributor if he can dazzle the team during the offseason workouts.
"Mentally, the biggest thing for me was understanding the offense," said Lattimore, via the San Jose Mercury. "Getting with Tom (Rathman), Frank (Gore) and everybody, they showed me how to play the game."
Lattimore plays the game a lot like Gore, showcasing tremendous cutting ability and great field vision to offset his average speed. He's a resilient and tireless runner, constantly moving his legs and lowering his shoulder to break tackles and fight for extra yardage.
Even more importantly, he's an extremely capable receiver out of the backfield, giving Kaepernick a significant checkdown upgrade over Gore and Bruce Miller.
Gore's receiving skills have declined sharply ever since Jim Harbaugh taught Alex Smith how to throw a forward pass, and he never seemed to mesh well with Kaepernick on underneath routes due to his lack of size and reach. Look for that to change with the bigger, sure-handed running back calling for swing passes in blitz packages and tight man-to-man coverage.
The video below gives you an idea of how dangerous Lattimore can be in the open field, snatching passes out of the air and running for long periods of time:
One thing that he'll be expected to work on in training camp is picking up the blitz and providing quarterbacks extra time in the pocket, via 49ers.com:
“That’s the biggest thing you have to know,” the rookie runner said. “If you can’t protect the quarterback, you can’t play.”
Protecting the quarterback isn't the only thing Lattimore should be working on during blitz drills. His strength and athleticism adds another weapon to the 49ers' arsenal: the screen pass.
Screens are something Harbaugh and Greg Roman have avoided like a plague, which makes no sense in their hybrid-scheme offense. The ability to counter an all-out attack by dumping the ball off to a running back who can turn upfield and score six points has to be included in the 20 or so audibles Kaepernick calls before getting a snap off.
Instead of ripping off Peyton Manning and chanting Omaha, they can call it Bakersfield.
I don't expect Harbaugh to make that kind of change, but I am hoping he'll use Lattimore if the rookie impresses during the offseason. Jim is someone who doesn't like to experiment. Yes, starting Kaepernick may have been the one exception, but sticking with Kyle Williams at starting receiver for as long as he did and rarely ever giving his rookies significant playing time has always been perturbing.
Harbaugh spoke favorably about Lattimore last week, via CSN Bay Area:
"This has been an outstanding year for Marcus. Tough at times, but great things will happen for him."
With Gore approaching the twilight years of his career and Lattimore set to make his long-awaited debut, the 49ers have the perfect balance of youth and experience in their running game. Screw the read-option. This one-two punch is what defenses should be worried about next season.
Marcus Lattimore is what they should be worried about in the years that will follow.
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