Photo Credit: Steve Boyle
It was reported today by ESPN insider Adam Schefter that former Gamecocks standout Marcus Lattimore is not expected to see the field this season for the San Fransisco 49ers. Lattimore is still rehabbing from the gruesome knee injury seen around the world suffered against Tennessee last season. For the last two seasons, we’ve seen this promising young back on the road recovery more so than the actual playing field. It’s time to put your admiration for Lattimore aside for a moment and realize why not seeing him in on the field 2013 will only extend the longevity of his career and benefit him in the long run.
The San Francisco 49ers are entering this season with a solid group of running backs, all ranging with different skill sets. The backfield is anchored by perennial pro bowler Frank Gore. Second on the depth chart is former Oregon star and promising second year man LaMichael James, while former Oklahoma State Cowboy Kendall Hunter is the likely third running back.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the current Niners rushing attack.
In this trio, eighth year man Frank Gore plays the role as the feature back while James and Hunter are complimentary backs. Gore is coming off of a strong 1,200 yard, 8 TD season in 2012, but at the same time he’s entering a critical point in his career. While the average career of an NFL running back lasts 3-5 years, Gore is theoretically entering the twilight of his career. Gore is only second to Falcons running Steven Jackson as the longest tenured running back in the NFL.
LaMichael James is entering his second year with the 49ers. He was not active for a majority of his rookie season as head coach Jim Harbaugh has always shown hesitation of incorporating offensive rookies into key positions. James carried the ball a total of 27 times for only 125 yards on the season. He’s expected to play a bigger role in 2013, but must prove that he can carry the ball with confidence and strong hands as fumbling was a point of weakness in 2012. His speed will provide many opportunities for touches offense as well as special teams.
Kendall Hunter, enters his third year with higher expectations after two sub-par seasons. In 2011 he appeared in all 16 regular season games tallying 473 yards on the ground with 2 TD’s. In 2012 Hunter’s season was hampered by injury after appearing in 11 games and running for only 371 yards and 2 TD’s. Hunter was originally drafted to help take some pressure off of Frank Gore. He has yet to prove that he is capable of embracing that role and becoming a consistent threat on the ground as a part of Jim Harbaugh’s offense.
While we now understand the state of the running backs for the 49ers, we can examine the role of Marcus Lattimore and why 2014 is better suited for his long-term success in the NFL.
After tearing his LCL, PCL, ACL and dislocating his knee just 10 months ago, one would assume that his playing status would already be in jeopardy as it is. However, Lattimore has proven to hold the unique ability in returning from catastrophic injury. Renowned surgeon James Andrews even described his recovery at one point as “superhuman.” Since Lattimore began his rehab, he’s consistently vowed to the media that he fully intended on being ready for the start of the ’13 season. While he may be mentally prepared, he’s fortunate to be in a situation where he is physically not needed. At least not quite yet.
Sitting out this season will only allow Lattimore to continue his rehab and to continue to strengthen his legs. The injuries that he suffered in the 2011 and 2012 season were to opposite knees. This extended rehab time will allow him to build up full strength in both knees and continue to work with the Niners training staff.
Had Lattimore actually been thrown into the mix this season, would it really have been worth it? Lattimore would have likely only seen very limited action on what could be considered “trash carries.” Trash carries meaning fourth quarter carries when the game was already out of reach or in situations where his carries aren’t considered meaningful. What if his surgically repaired knee wasn’t ready for action and his legs were once again put in jeopardy, all for a meaningless carry?
When Lattimore returns in 2014, because of his body of work at South Carolina, (2,677 career yards on the ground and 38 career TD’s) a healthy Marcus Lattimore could conceivably vie for the starting running back job in San Francisco. In a win now, at any cost league, we could easily see Frank Gore in a different uniform next season, should he not produce at the level he has in years past. This season is just as big of a test for LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter in the hopes of fortifying their roles within the offense. They need to be prepared to look over their shoulders after this season as a former Heisman Trophy candidate is going to be gunning for their carries.
When Marcus Lattimore returns for his third act in 2014, we can all thank the 49ers organization and head coach Jim Harbaugh for realizing that they protected a valuable asset and didn’t force him into action when it wasn’t necessary. We can thank them for giving us the chance to see the Marcus Lattimore that was given the best and most fair chance to succeed. By the 2014 season, Marcus Lattimore will be as healthy as he can be. Should he be able to bounce back to the once promising form we’ve all become accustomed to, the NFL and football fans are in for a treat.