When South Carolina's back Marcus Lattimore dislocated his left kneecap and suffered several torn knee ligaments against Tennessee on Oct. 27, it was the worst knee injury many had seen a star college running back prospect have since Miami's Willis McGahee tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL in the 2002 national championship game. The injury sidelined Lattimore for the rest of the Gamecocks' 2012 season, and put his collegiate future in doubt.
This week, Lattimore ended all speculation by announcing that he would declare for the 2013 NFL draft. There's no question about the talent that allowed Lattimore to gain 2,677 yards and score 38 touchdowns on 555 carries, but the specter of that injury, combined with the torn ACL he suffered in the 2012 season, will certainly have NFL teams doing more than their due diligence.
The good for Lattimore is that there's some strong precedent for running backs with serious knee injuries returning to form in the NFL, especially recently. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is contending for the league's Most Valuable Player award and a possible 2,000-yard campaign less than a year after his own serious knee surgery. McGahee was selected in the first round of the 2003 draft by the Buffalo Bills, missed the entire 2003 season, but has run for 8,097 yards and 63 touchdowns on 1,957 carries with a total of three teams since 2004. And Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs came back from a knee injury that robbed him of nearly the entire 2011 season to put up 1,220 yards through 13 games and 12 starts this year in an offense with little or no effective passing game.
Lattimore's recovery is coming along nicely -- he's off crutches, he will meet with teams at the 2013 scouting combine in February, and he hopes to go through a modified pro day of sorts in March if he is able to jog and catch passes at that time. He may have to miss the 2013 NFL season, but Lattimore might be a great bargain for a team looking to bolster its running back rotation over time.
As ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said in a recent media call, the history is more than solid for people who have overcome what Lattimore is dealing with, but NFL teams will still want to do extra work before putting him on their draft boards.
"I guess he feels like, 'Hey, Willis McGahee had the serious injury and was still a first-round pick,'" Kiper said. "Lattimore has first-round ability, but right now, he's a wild card. He'll get checked out in the medicals, and you have to figure out when he'll be back full-strength. When he's healthy, he doesn't have tremendous speed, but he still shows breakaway ability. He has the pad level, the vision, and the toughness. But the durability concerns are going to be there."
Based on the tape, and assuming he comes back to full strength from this injury as he did from the injury in 2010, Lattimore clearly has the skills to succeed in the right NFL system. At 6-foot-0 and 220 pounds, he doesn't have the "low-body" advantage given to backs like Doug Martin and Ray Rice, but he runs with a low pad level, and he is always running (almost falling) forward, looking to gain that extra yard. There was talk that the 2011 ACL injury robbed him of some lateral agility, but from what I saw, that attribute was making a comeback in 2012. Lattimore has excellent vision at the line, he makes quick and instinctive decisions regarding open gaps, and he displays an excellent burst to push past the line and get out to the second level.
Where I think he might run into trouble at the next level, and this would be the case were injuries not a concern, is that he's not always able to get free if the line is closed. I think he could be a boom-and-bust NFL back because of that. He didn't lose a lot of yards at South Carolina -- not a lot of negative plays -- but he'll now be facing defenders who are bigger, stronger, faster, and in more complex schemes. He reminds me a bit of Chicago's Matt Forte, and he also brings to mind Chris Brown, a tall back who played for the Tennessee Titans from 2003 through 2007, and for the Houston Texans in 2009.
In my opinion, the best NFL team for Lattimore would be one in which the quarterback helps set the tone for the running game by adding read-option, zone-option, and Pistol elements to the offense, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco, and Carolina certainly come to mind. That he's a willing and able pass-blocker will give Lattimore an edge with many teams, as will his focus on the little things that make great backs great. If he shows that he can once again return to full health, Marcus Lattimore could be quite the steal in this draft class.