In the shadings of Willis McGahee, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore officially declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday after sustaining a devastating knee injury. Though it's a bold move, it may be the best one for his future.
At 6'0", and 220 lbs, Lattimore possesses an NFL running back's body. There is no question about his talent, but durability is an obvious concern after two knee injuries in as many years.
Of course, many backs have returned from knee injuries and become prolific players. After all, a headline NFL story is about Adrian Peterson's shot at the NFL rushing record after tearing his ACL and MCL on December 24 last season.
Lattimore's injury is more in the vein of Willis McGahee's injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Lattimore sustained his injury on October 27; McGahee sustained his injury on January 3. This gives Lattimore about two additional months of recovery, which has served him well. ESPN reports that his recovery is on schedule, and he is off crutches.
According to ESPN, he aims to be "jogging and catching passes at the end of March for NFL executives, and plans to visit with them at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis," but he most likely be unable to perform at the combine or his pro day. Willis McGahee was unable to participate in either as well.
LIke McGahee, Lattimore will probably miss his entire rookie season, but will have an entire year to recover with NFL team doctors and learn the offensive system.
NFLDraftScout.com ranked McGahee second in his running back class behind Penn State's Larry Johnson. McGahee may have been selected 23rd overall, but he was the first running back taken in the 2003 NFL Draft.
Lattimore will not have such luck this year as this class is filled with top talent at running back, including Wisconsin's Montee Ball, Clemson's Andre Ellington and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. Pre-injury, Lattimore was considered a first-round talent.
In addition to the two knee injuries, Lattimore suffered an ankle injury against Kentucky in 2010, which forced him to miss the following week's game against Vanderbilt. He was also knocked out against Florida State in the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Lattimore has played in 29 games, completing 25 of them.
Adrian Peterson was also injury-prone in his time at Oklahoma. He underwent shoulder surgery following his freshman season. He was limited by a high ankle sprain in his sophomore season. He broke his collarbone in his junior season. None of this stopped him from getting drafted seventh overall in the 2007 NFL Draft and pursuing a successful pro career.
Like Peterson, Lattimore's decision to enter the NFL draft is simply the most practical one. Returning to South Carolina to move up the 2014 draft board puts him at risk for another injury, which would essentially make his NFL career an afterthought. Right now, he must get what he can while he can. He has already proven his ability at the college level, despite missing nine whole games the past two years—ten, if you count South Carolina versus Michigan in the Outback Bowl on New Year's.
NFL scouts will simply have to make do with the film they have on Lattimore, and decide if he is NFL-ready. In my opinion, Lattimore will definitely find an NFL home. It's just a matter of NFL front offices deciding where the risk will match the reward.