I try not to get sentimental around here often. In fact, I try to be free of any human emotion whatsoever. Or maybe that’s just how I feel now in hour three on Day 3 of watching a ticker on multiple screens. Don’t forget, I burn retinas for a living so you don’t have to.
But it’s difficult to not dig up some pom poms for Marcus Lattimore. I won’t post the video again here (I’ve been guilty of that in the past), but when Lattimore shredded his knee in late October, in the immediate aftermath of the injury it was thought that living a normal existence would be an accomplishment. If you were to argue that his injury in that game is the most gruesome televised sports injury this side of Kevin Ware and Joe Theismann, you’d get little debate.
Then just a few months later, there was hope. First Lattimore ran in a pool, and then later he ran for scouts and completed a few basic drills during South Carolina’s Pro Day. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but there he was, talking about being healthy and ready for the 2013 regular season.
Now he’s the latest piece in a terrific draft by the 49ers, completing his improbable story (look how far we’ve come from showing no emotion, to outright swooning).
The Niners used their late fourth-round pick (131st overall) on Lattimore as they continued to beautifully orchestrate a draft they began with 15 picks. Multiple trades were completed while Trent Baalke did his draft dance, and early his picks were highlighted by Eric Reid filling the hole at safety left by Dashon Goldson, Tank Carradine providing more of Mike Mayock’s beloved “twitchiness” off the edge, and Vance McDonald becoming the newest Delanie Walker.
But in a few years, we could view Lattimore as the best value not only for the Niners, but in this draft as a whole. He could be that damn good.
Or conversely, his knee could explode. That would suck, but at 131st overall (nearly the fifth round), any injury risk is highly minimized, and very manageable. That wouldn’t be true if the 49ers were in a position where Lattimore needs to be relied upon to make a contribution of even remote significance in 2013. Of course, nothing is further from the truth.
The 49ers had the fourth best rushing offense in the league this past season, and they were also one of only four teams to average more than 150 yards per game on the ground (155.7 at a pace of 5.1 yards per carry). Frank Gore was the leader of that attack, as he has been for many years. He logged his second straight year with over 1,200 rushing yards (1,214) and eight touchdowns.
That alone is great, but what makes the 49ers a comfortable place for Lattimore and his future is the depth that lies beyond Gore. A year ago, a second-round pick was invested in LaMichael James, and he started to receive more touches late in the 2012 season and throughout the playoffs. Ahead of him is Kendall Hunter, whose late-season injury necessitated those touches for James, but prior to that he averaged 5.2 yards per carry while recording four games with 40 or more yards despite limited usage (just two games with double digit carries).
Hell, let’s even throw in Anthony Dixon, who was useful in a short-yardage and goal-line role while scoring twice, and fullback Bruce Miller. That immense depth gives Lattimore the best tonic for his quick recovering but still ailing knee: time.
While he could be healthy enough to make at least a limited contribution at some point next season, that’s simply not needed with Gore, James, Hunter et al there. A team like the 49ers with this kind of depth was always the best destination for Lattimore to capitalize on his vast upside, because he can only do that if he’s given the proper healing time.
Gore will turn 30 next month, meaning he’ll officially hit the age when running backs often turn into stone when sunlight hits their face. He has two years left on his current contract, and despite playing in every game over the past two seasons, he’s often been slowed by nagging injuries.
When that contract expires and when Gore is ready to fade off into the everlasting running back sunset, Lattimore will be there, and ready to turn his fourth-round value today into first-round upside.