It is no secret the San Francisco 49ers are comfortable drafting injured players—redshirting them their rookie seasons while essentially getting a bargain on their draft-pick investment.
In 2014, the team did this with prospects like Brandon Thomas, Keith Reaser and Trey Millard—players whose draft stock fell considerably due to their respective injuries.
A year ago, the 49ers employed this same philosophy. In 2013, San Francisco drafted defensive end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine and running back Marcus Lattimore. Both of these players also sat out their rookie seasons recovering from injury.
We did not get to see what type of impact both Carradine and Lattimore would have on the field a season ago. In short, the 49ers were in no rush to hurry the development of each player onto a roster already laden with talent.
But another year has passed, and the incumbent group of 49ers is a year older.
In the case of both Carradine and Lattimore, this element carries substantial weight. San Francisco has an aging cast of characters at each one of the respective positions, leading to the notion that 2014 could be the year that both Carradine and Lattimore make their substantial impacts known.
Let's dive a little deeper into what we should expect out of these two members of the 49ers' 2013 draft class and try to predict specifically what roles each will play in the upcoming season.
Tank Carradine, Defensive End
6'4", 276 pounds
Drafting Carradine with the 40th overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft made plenty of sense from the 49ers' vantage point.
For starters, San Francisco needed to start thinking about the long-term solution to replacing the venerable-but-aging Justin Smith on the 49ers defensive line. At 34 years old, it is safe to say that Smith's days in the NFL are numbered, and it was necessary to find his eventual replacement.
Carradine essentially fills this void—when it becomes mandatory. We will get into that in a bit.
The thing that makes Carradine a special commodity is his combination of size and speed from the end of the line. A pass-rushing specialist, Carradine totaled 11 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss in his senior year at Florida State.
He has the tools to be that presence on San Francisco's D-line—elements currently held by Smith anchoring this specific unit.
Carradine's absence from the active roster in 2013 meant that he was able to spend an entire season being Smith's understudy, while also being able to fully recover from the collegiate injury sustained his senior year.
Entering his second year, Carradine is no longer a rookie and feels as if his development is well underway. He also draws inspiration from Smith, as he stated, via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com:
To see everything [Justin Smith] and Aldon Smith did together, it was amazing. If I compare myself to him, there are some similarities, but I am my own player. He is his own player. Learning the game of football in the NFL is much different than in college. I was able to take in everything. I feel like I'm ahead of the game.
Now the focus shifts to whether or not Carradine's knee will be up to the rigors of an increased role.
Fortunately, all signs point to Carradine being ready to go at the start of the 2014 season.
This aspect is echoed by Cam Inman of The San Jose Mercury News, who wrote, "Carradine's right knee finally looks and feels at full strength, which is welcome news after a 49ers rookie season spent in rehabilitation."
Of course, much of the 49ers' offseason practices thus far have been non-contact drills—practices that certainly limit the true abilities of what Carradine is projected to do.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee points this out by writing:
The ever-cautious defensive coordinator [Vic Fangio] noted that Carradine has yet to go through a single padded practice with the 49ers. In addition, the team has an abundance of defensive linemen, most of whom - like Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie - have more experience than Carradine, whom Fangio said was essentially just starting his career.
“He's basically not much different than a rookie coming in right now,” Fangio said, via Barrows. “So this is his first shot.”
Barrows brings up a good point—Carradine's lack of NFL experience does count against him when determining the 49ers' depth chart in 2014. But one cannot overlook the positives that come with Carradine's game.
Given his knack for creating pressure upon opposing offensive lines, Carradine should easily climb up the depth charts in a short amount of time.
The likely scenario is seeing Carradine becoming the immediate backup behind Smith and fellow end Ray McDonald entering the 2014 season. As the year progresses, one should expect Carradine to see more snaps as the 49ers look to rest their veteran starters for a postseason run.
Marcus Lattimore, Running Back
5'11", 221 Pounds
It would have been a reasonable prediction to assume that South Carolina's phenom back would have never been the same again after suffering a gruesome injury his senior year with the Gamecocks.
Yet the 49ers felt as if Lattimore had plenty to offer at the next level when they elected to draft him in Round 4 of the 2013 NFL draft.
Like Carradine, Lattimore spent the entire year on the physically unable to play (PUP) list, devoting his time to recovering from the injury and subsequent surgery.
The move made sense at the time. Incumbent No. 1 back Frank Gore is now 31 years old and is assuredly winding down his NFL career. But San Francisco felt no need to rush Lattimore into the fray with Gore still contributing at a respectable level.
All signs pointed to 2014 being the debut of a collegiate star who posted 2,677 rushing yards on 555 attempts for 38 touchdowns in three years at South Carolina.
Then came the 2014 NFL draft.
San Francisco added another piece to the backfield puzzle when they drafted running back Carlos Hyde out of Ohio State. Hyde—another highly touted runner—may also be viewed as the guy who eventually secures Gore's role when that time comes.
This opens up the door for some hefty competition behind Gore and, more importantly, for the eventual job of San Francisco's featured back.
I look at it like it’s competition. Competition brings out the best in you. It brings out the best in every player in the backfield. We’ve got a group of great guys and we all want the best for each other, but at the end of the day, we all want to play. We’re going to compete and we’re going to bring the best out of each other and we’re going to have a great backfield.
Both are big, powerful backs who run downhill. Both hope to develop the excellent vision and blocking skills Gore has perfected over the years.
But Lattimore also states that he has a bigger vision in mind aside from just the competition with Hyde.
"I'm trying to take [Gore's] job, but I know that's going to be the hardest thing in the world," Lattimore told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today.
Sure, Lattimore has a long way to go if he hopes to accomplish that feat. Gore is not quite ready to hand over the reigns quite yet, and Hyde also factors into the equation.
But that sort of mindset is always a good thing to have. One never wants to hear a player say he wants to be the best No. 2 guy on the depth chart.
So where exactly does Lattimore stand as the 2014 season approaches?
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area offers additional insight by writing:
Lattimore is making good progress from the knee injury that ended his college career in October 2012. The 49ers want to keep their power-running mindset even when Gore is no longer around to pound it between the tackles. Dr. Lattimore and Mr. Hyde give the 49ers that option with a lot less wear and tear on just one person.
This is essentially what the 49ers are probably looking for in the long run. We'll dive into that shortly.
In the meantime, Lattimore has been looking solid through training camp so far—an aspect further described by Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Theoretically, Lattimore could emerge as the favorite between he and Hyde. While Hyde's profile is certainly more promising, given he is not recovering from injury, Lattimore should not be considered too far behind.
Gore should remain San Francisco's No. 1 running back entering the 2014 season with Hyde and Lattimore trailing him as backups.
The real impact should be felt in 2015 when, most likely, Gore's tenure with the 49ers is over. While Hyde should still be projected as the premier runner, Lattimore would be an enviable complement—essentially creating a two-headed monster out of San Francisco's backfield.
This is a nice, nice thing for the 49ers to entertain.
While it is great to hype players like Carradine and Lattimore, we cannot overlook the fact that neither has actually stepped foot onto the field for a regular-season game.
The true test will obviously come with each player's debut on the field—some of which will be revealed during the 49ers' preseason campaign.
Still, the stock on both Carradine and Lattimore remains very high. Each offers a dynamic set of attributes that should both impact the 49ers this season and carry over into subsequent seasons thereafter.
At any rate, look for each of these players to become prominent pieces in the future of the 49ers franchise.
Both have overcome a lot to get here, and both have a long way to go. Still, the prospects of each are promising and showcase just how smart San Francisco's front office is.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' news, analysis and insight.
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