By Chris Mahr
Making good on the speculation that had been building since late November, South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore opted to forego his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL Draft. This in spite of suffering one of the most gruesome injuries in recent memory and the possibility that he might miss all of the 2013 season while rehabilitating.
It was never much of a debate as to whether Marcus should turn pro or return to Columbia. The diligent manner in which he had toted the ball for the Gamecocks since 2010 gave him the right to do whatever he pleased in that regard. And from a practical standpoint, rehabbing his knee would be a much easier process if he was getting paid to do it.
The debate shifts to whether Lattimore is worth investing a high- to mid-round draft pick in. Prior to the 2012 season, most pundits had the 21-year-old man child as a surefire first round selection. But the severity of his knee injury — his second in as many seasons — created a host of doubters skeptical as to whether Lattimore would ever regain his original, dominant form.
I don’t think there’s a question that he will. And I think that any NFL general manager with a second round pick and Lattimore still on the board would be wise to snatch him up.
While it would require patience on the part of a team, the wait for Lattimore to come around again would be well worth it. No fewer than three factors make him at least second-round material.
No. 1: Intangibles as a Player and Person
While Lattimore’s numbers with the Gamecocks — 2,677 rushing yards and 38 TDs in three seasons — were impressive, they only told half his story. Watching him run with the patience and vision of a pro-caliber back the moment he stepped onto campus was eye-opening. It normally takes years for college backs to exhibit the feel for the game that seemed to come naturally for the Duncan, SC, native.
Yet that innate ability never went to Lattimore’s head. He was as quiet and humble a superstar as you could find. A star with more hubris that Lattimore would have had a much harder time with coming back from that first knee injury, yet he was almost 100% at the time of his second one.
It also says something about Lattimore that he hasn’t disappeared and gone into a hole since going down against Tennessee. He’s smiled and flashed the “No. 1” sign for a widely-shared Twitter photo. He’s taped a video for Gamecocks athletics updating fans on his recovery.
Those aren’t the actions of someone who thinks their football career is over. That demonstrates the mentality of a player who sees the hand he’s been dealt as just another roadblock he has to clear en route to his NFL dreams.
No. 2: The McGahee Example
As was the case for many fans when Lattimore was hurt, my mind immediately flashed to Willis McGahee crumpled on the turf at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Initially, it was because Lattimore’s injury was the most gruesome the college football world had scene since McGahee’s. Over time, it was because McGahee started representing the best case scenario for Lattimore.
Like the Gamecocks star, McGahee was universally considered a high first round pick prior to his injury. And like Lattimore, McGahee had to face skeptics when he went down and his surefire first round status faded.
But he faced them with grace. He acknowledged that he would likely fall to the second or third round (as well as sit out the 2003 season) and then immediately started rehabbing so aggressively that a mere 15 weeks after his Fiesta Bowl injury, he worked out for roughly a dozen NFL scouts.
McGahee ended up as a surprising first round selection of the Bills as well as the first running back selected in the draft. He’s been a solid back at each of his three NFL stops — Buffalo, Baltimore and Denver — and remains in the NFL ten years later at age 31.
By all accounts, Lattimore possesses that same work ethic that allowed McGahee to come back from his own hideous injury. What’s more, NFL scouts understand that if a running back is young and dedicated enough, he can bounce back from an early setback like Lattimore’s en route to a long and productive career.
No. 3: Reduced Wear and Tear of the NFL
Yes, Lattimore will be hit harder if and when he steps onto an NFL field for the first time. But compared to his time at South Carolina, where he consistently carried the ball 20–30 times a game, he won’t be exposed to those hard hits as often.
The NFL’s leader in rushing attempts in 2012, Houston’s Arian Foster, is averaging just a shade under 23 carries per game. It’s a passing league these days, where runs are attempted so as to take advantage of the holes generated by spread out defenses.
Lattimore wouldn’t have to carry the ball or have the defense key in on him as often as he experienced with the Gamecocks because not only do offenses pass less, many split carries among their running backs now. Lattimore would be a perfect fit as the “Thunder” in an offense with bruising runs between the tackles and on the goal line while a “Lightning” running back could carry the ball another 10 times a game as a change of pace.
It’s eerily fitting that Lattimore is taking this chance exactly 10 years after McGahee did so. But here we are in late 2012, and McGahee is still in the league, having proved his pre-draft doubters wrong a long time ago.
Yes, this draft is deep in running backs (i.e. Andre Ellington, Montee Ball, Kenjon Barner, Johnathan Franklin, Stepfan Taylor), but none of the other top prospects comes close to matching the same NFL ceiling as Lattimore.
If an NFL general manager is wise and has the chance, he should allow Lattimore the same opportunity to silence his own skeptics and select him sooner rather than later.
Who knows: With McGahee’s career now winding down, the stars could align again and land Lattimore in The Mile High City next April. How fitting that would be.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Kim Klement/USA Today Sports