The San Francisco 49ers essentially enter the 2014 season with two rookie running backs. There’s Carlos Hyde, whom they drafted in the second round of this year’s draft, and there’s Marcus Lattimore, the 2013 draft pick who spent all of last season recuperating from a serious knee injury.
Essentially, then, the 49ers have two unknown quantities battling for carries in 2014 and beyond. It’s an interesting competition, as Hyde was often considered in projections, such as WalterFootball.com's analysis, to be the best back available in the 2014 draft. Lattimore, on the other hand, was considered by some, including NFL.com’s Charley Casserly, to be the best back available in the 2013 draft.
Let’s compare Hyde and Lattimore, looking at their college production and their scouting reports, to get a clearer picture of what each player brings to the table and which player might be a better fit for San Francisco’s offensive style going forward.
Lattimore was a contributor from his true freshman year at South Carolina, earning Freshman of the Year honors from Sporting News. His season ended in the Chick-fil-A Bowl with a concussion in the first quarter, which has sadly set a precedent for the rest of his career so far.
In both 2011 and 2012, Lattimore saw his season end due to injuries, suffering a torn ligament in his sophomore season and a dislocated knee as a junior. He’s yet to complete a full season since leaving high school, so there are definitely durability concerns. His talent was evident from day one, however, as he was the unquestioned starter for his entire time at South Carolina.
Hyde, on the other hand, spent most of his freshman year on the bench, playing behind Dan Herron. He earned more carries his sophomore season, but it was during his junior year that he finally became the featured back in the offense.
Ohio State’s quarterback, Braxton Miller, is a rusher himself, however, so Hyde’s numbers didn’t really explode until his senior season, putting up 1,500 yards, despite being suspended for the first three games of the season. Hyde’s 7.3 yards per attempt was ninth-best in the country, per Sports-Reference.com/cfb, as he was often unstoppable.
Hyde’s 1,521 yards trump any single season Lattimore put up in college. However, the Big Ten is a different beast than the SEC—in general, SEC competition is tougher.
We can quantify this somewhat. In 2013, Hyde’s best season, the average Big Ten team, not including Ohio State, gave up an average of 163.2 yards per game on the ground. The 2010 SEC, where Lattimore excelled, only allowed 144.7 yards per game. All things being equal, you’d expect a running back in Hyde’s situation to earn a little more than 1.1 times as many yards as one facing SEC defenses.
Hyde put up about 1.3 times as many yards as Lattimore’s best season, so while the difference isn’t quite as pronounced as the raw-yardage totals would make it look, Hyde’s best season is still more impressive than Lattimore’s best.
However, Lattimore has multiple years of starting-quality numbers to Hyde’s one. Averaging 5.0 yards per carry in the SEC is more impressive than 5.2 in the Big Ten, considering the quality of opponent. Hyde really only got to show his skills as a starter in his phenomenal senior season; Lattimore was a phenom from day one.
Comparing combine drills is technically impossible, because Lattimore was injured, and thus he could not participate. I did find some unofficial numbers from 2012, per TonySoftLi.com, prior to his knee injury, so we can at least have some comparison.
|Player||40-Yard Dash||Bench Press||Vertical Jump||Broad Jump|
|Carlos Hyde||4.61||19 reps||34.5"||9'6"|
|Marcus Lattimore||4.56||24 reps||32"||9'8"|
When they were both fully healthy, Lattimore showed a bit more explosiveness, showing more power and speed than Hyde. The speed, however, can be somewhat explained away—Hyde’s 10 pounds heavier than Lattimore, so the .05 differential between their two times is somewhat of a wash.
There’s also the question of how explosive Lattimore can be after multiple knee injuries. Those 2012 numbers might be a thing of the past at this point. We’ll have to see how they play once the pads are put on to really get a clear picture of how Lattimore’s recovery has gone.
Hyde isn’t a burner, and he’s not going to juke around tackles on the second level. He’s not going to shy away from contact; he’s going to attempt to plow right through people. He has shown an ability at the college level to break through tackles and fight back to the line of scrimmage, even if he's hit in the backfield.
I’ve seen him compared to Frank Gore a lot for his toughness, but a better comparison might be Marshawn Lynch. Like Lynch, Hyde’s not afraid to initiate contact, with a powerful stiff arm to push off would-be tacklers from behind.
The area Hyde is clearly ahead of Lattimore is in terms of sheer power.
Lattimore isn’t going to push the pile forward as much as Hyde will; he’s going to pinball off of people and be tough to bring down. Hyde, on the other hand, is going to take your tackle and drag you forward for extra yardage. On goal-line plays or 3rd-and-1 power situations, he’s going to take your biggest defender and run through him, pushing him forward and picking up your yardage.
Lattimore’s a very similar running back in general. Like Hyde, he’s primarily a north-south runner, who stays low, bursting through holes in the line of scrimmage. You’re not going to bring him down with an arm tackle.
Lattimore has a little bit more shiftiness than Hyde does, though again, neither is precisely the second coming of Reggie Bush out there. The area where Lattimore is clearly ahead of Hyde is with his vision.
Hyde will sometimes continue plowing through the line even if a hole opens up to the outside. He trusts his blockers and is patient waiting for the blocks to develop, but sometimes there are holes where he could bounce outside and earn a big gain, which he doesn’t consistently diagnose.
Lattimore almost has a sixth sense for where the hole is going to open, and he has great instincts to find creases and smash through them. Lattimore is more likely to turn nothing into something, while Hyde’s more likely to fight players back to the line of scrimmage. It’s a minor difference, but it’s there.
Hyde and Lattimore won’t really become a thunder-and-lightning duo in the NFL; it would be thunder and then more thunder. They’re really very similar players in most respects, with their differences being minor amounts of polish in different areas.
If it wasn’t for the two catastrophic knee injuries, I’d make Lattimore the favorite to be the future starter. He’s shown more featured-back ability during his college seasons and produced more in the tougher conference. He’s shown more indications of his ability as a blocker in the passing game, and he has better vision.
But you can’t take away those two knee injuries, and that’s what makes Hyde the favorite. Hyde has a lot of tread still on his tires because he wasn’t overworked at Ohio State, which is good for a back who relies so much on bowling people over.
Hyde’s more durable and runs with more power. Behind San Francisco’s offensive line, it’s hard not to see him smashing through linebackers with a full head of steam.
Both backs have the potential to become great NFL players, but the durability concerns are enough for me to rate Hyde slightly over Lattimore at this point.
Bryan Knowles is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.
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