Damaged goods

On October 27, college football fans winced collectively when South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a horrific knee injury against Tennessee.

Considered one of the top offensive prospects for the 2013 draft at the time, the beleaguered Lattimore dislocated his left kneecap and suffered several torn ligaments after being tackled (cleanly, I might add) by Vols cornerback Eric Gordon, leaving many to speculate whether his football career may in fact be over before he had even reached the pros.

After all, despite having rushed for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year, the Gamecocks junior only just seemed to be working his way back into top form, less than 12 months after his sophomore season was cut short due to a torn ACL, and another serious injury could well have been the final nail in the coffin. It would certainly have been a sad end to the career of a prospect who was considered one of the best in the nation coming of high school in 2010 and who wowed fans with his outstanding play as a freshman.

Fortunately, Lattimore’s surgery was deemed a success by his doctors, though he now faces another long and arduous road to recovery, leaden with potential complications, which will likely rule him out for the entire 2013 season and perhaps even beyond. South Carolina’s career leader in both overall touchdowns (41) and rushing scores (38), it is a bitter blow for a prospect who likely could have found himself selected within the top 10 picks come April.

Nevertheless, in a not wholly unexpected move, Lattimore recently announced that he was finished with college football and would be entering the NFL draft, despite the serious damage done to his stock. On the face of it, the decision appears a risky one but in fact it may well be the best move the running back could make at this point.

Lattimore had a redshirt year available at South Carolina and could have returned to the Gamecocks in 2014, though it’s highly unlikely, given his now glaring injury history, that his stock would have ever recovered to its former lofty heights. Furthermore, the risk of returning to school and incurring a further injury was clearly too much of a gamble to take. Running backs only have so many carries in them after all so in that sense it’s hard to blame Lattimore for trying to capitalize on his obvious talents while he still can.

The best case scenario now for Lattimore is that a patient team is willing to roll the dice at some stage during the middle rounds of the draft, seeing the chance to grab a genuine first-round talent for a relative bargain. Lattimore may be unlikely to contribute on the field for the best part of a year but if there is a war room out there come draft day which believes it can afford to take such a gamble then a second-day selection is certainly not out of the question.

The medical examinations at February’s scouting combine will clearly be central to how this entire process plays out, as Lattimore tries to prove to NFL teams that his rehab is coming along well and that there are no previously undetected complications with the knee.

Rehabbing in an NFL environment, where a player can work fulltime with team doctors and training staff, is almost certainly Lattimore’s best option for quick recovery and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the South Carolina running back can return to enjoy a productive pro career.

Many people have inevitably made the comparison to the situation current Denver Broncos running Willis McGahee found himself in before the 2003 draft, after the Miami Hurricanes’ star tore his ACL, PCL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl early that year. Despite facing a lengthy rehabilitation process, McGahee decided to enter the draft, eventually being selected by the Buffalo Bills with the 23rd overall pick and going on to enjoy a productive NFL career, after sitting out the 2003 season. Considered a lock to go in the top five picks before the injury, McGahee may well have been a much more highly touted prospect than Lattimore but his story nonetheless shows that such a comeback is possible for the former Gamecocks back.

Michael Bush too faced a similar dilemma in 2007, after a right leg fracture suffered midway through the season caused his draft stock to plummet, and comparisons to current Chicago Bears running back’s entry into the NFL may in fact be more fitting for Lattimore, who’s likely to be selected around the same point as his counterpart come April (fourth round – 100th overall). Lattimore could of course slip out of the draft entirely if teams aren’t convinced of his recovery but, in a year in which the running back position is noticeably weak, the ailing prospect still presents a highly intriguing option and many are sure to be enticed by undoubted potential.

In terms of projections, when healthy, Lattimore has displayed all the characteristics that NFL teams desire in a top running back prospect. A powerful but equally elusive back, Lattimore does all the little things well: he secures the ball tightly when running, is a consistent pass blocker and has shown solid receiving hands out of the backfield – a perfect skillset for the demands placed on the position in today’s NFL. His one area of weakness may be a lack of breakaway speed but when you are 6-0, 220 lbs, that isn’t such a necessity.

Lattimore also more than proved he could carry the load in college and although his injury history may now have hampered that reputation somewhat, the worth of an elite ‘bell cow’ back should not be underestimated, no matter what various analysts will tell you about the devaluation of the position in recent years.

Perhaps Lattimore never reaches his former potential once he returns from the injury but if I were a team like the Packers or Falcons, who, at their current strength, can afford the luxury of taking a relative gamble with a mid-round pick, then I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to draft such a potentially rewarding prospect. A few years from now, we may well look back at the 2013 draft and consider Lattimore to have been an absolute steal.

Best Case: Willis McGahee

Worst Case: Ahmaad Galloway (former Denver Broncos)

Projected Round: Late-3rd to mid-4th

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