The Curious Case of Marcus Lattimore

Before suffering a serious knee injury this season, South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was poised to give us a rare repeat from last year’s NFL Draft: an early first round running back selection. However, the severity of that injury and Lattimore’s inability to participate in the Combine cast serious doubt on his draft stock. Could he fall far enough to become a low-risk, high-reward steal for the Rams?

Teams willing to gamble a pick on the talented but unlucky SEC product will have to decide whether they think he is closer to Adrian Peterson or Ki-Jana Carter, but perhaps some more recent history will give better insight. Both Willis McGahee and Frank Gore suffered significant knee injuries while in college. They were 1st and 3rd round picks respectively, however most experts are not currently projecting Lattimore as an early round pick. Carter was one of the biggest busts in draft history. McGahee has made a nice career as a solid but unspectacular player, and Gore remains a franchise back after his 6th career 1000 yard season in 2012.

Statistically, it is hard to compare college players because of different offensive systems, quality of offensive lines, and caliber of opposing defenses. With that caveat in mind I looked at how Lattimore compares to the most recent top-10 running back, Trent Richardson. While clearly running behind a superior offensive line, Richardson averaged a full yard-per-carry more than Lattimore, 5.8 to 4.8, but they were very similar in one area: carries per touchdown (14.6 for Lattimore to 15.4 for Richardson).

However, since Lattimore lacks the breakaway speed of a Richardson or Adrian Peterson, I looked a little further to find perhaps a better comparable, and ended up finding one closer to home.

A big, power back with good vision, patience and lateral quickness. Breaks arm tackles and is a good receiver out of the backfield. That sounds a lot like SJ39 to me.

While now 10 years removed from his college days, there are some interesting physical and statistical parallels between Lattimore and Steven Jackson. Both played 3 seasons, and while Jackson had more carries, they are very similar in many areas:

  Measurements Rush TD Rush Avg Rec Rec Avg
Marcus Lattimore 2010-12 6'0", 210 lbs 38 4.8 74 10.4
Steven Jackson 2001-03 6'2", 231 lbs 39 4.9 75 10.3

Additionally, if you watch video of Lattimore, you can see stylistic similarities to the way Jackson runs, especially when he initiates contact at the second level to grind out extra yards. 

The current Rams regime has shown a willingness to take risks in the draft, with character-concern players Janoris Jenkins and Chris Givens both making significant contributions as rookies, but neither had the injury concerns that exist with Lattimore. Perhaps a better comparable is Danario Alexander, who the Rams cut based on injury concerns but subsequently put up nice numbers for San Diego. Will that result cause the Rams to be a bit more patient going forward, or will they continue to focus on players who can stay on the field?

I understand the conventional wisdom which says that rebuilding teams cannot afford to “waste” a draft pick on luxuries or gambles, but if I were Jeff Fisher and Les Snead I would consider it under the right circumstances. It is no secret that Fisher wants to be a power running team, and Lattimore certainly fits that mold. Assuming that Steven Jackson is back for next year, Lattimore would not be needed and could spend the year on IR. And who better to serve as a mentor and teach what it means to be a professional than Jackson? This approach would also give the team another year to truly evaluate what they have in Pead and Richardson.

A lot will depend on how he is progressing come Combine time, but if progress is being made, I would be willing to use a 4th round pick on this kid, especially in the case where the Rams trade down with one of their first 3 picks and stockpile some extra picks in the middle rounds.

Lattimore may turn out to be another Ki-Jana Carter and it would be foolish to use a first round pick on such a gamble, but isn’t it worth the risk of a mid-round pick in case he is closer to McGahee, Gore, or Jackson?