The odds are stacked against South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore ever making an impact at the NFL level. After a devastating knee injury he suffered on October 27 against Tennessee, it looked as if the superstar would never make it back to the gridiron.
All the more reason to believe in him.
Lattimore dislocated his knee and sustained damage to the surrounding ligaments in that game with one of the more gruesome injuries of the college football season. Just five months later, the 21-year-old was putting on a show for NFL teams at his pro day on March 28.
Lattimore joins a list of several high-profile athletes to have recovered from similar knee injuries in recent years. And while players like Adrian Peterson (who astounded everyone by recovering from an ACL tear in 2011) have made the process seem almost routine, few have had to fight for a job after recovering from those injuries.
The South Carolina product is doing just that, preparing for the NFL draft and a chance to continue his football career under the brightest lights of the sport.
Prior to his injury, Lattimore was widely considered the best running back in the nation. With an uncommon combination of size, speed and vision, Lattimore has the potential to be a tremendous runner at the NFL level.
The biggest question is how NFL teams will view his durability and how those concerns will affect his draft stock. The former is fairly easy to predict, but the latter leaves a lot of room for speculation.
It’s not unusual for college prospects to suffer injuries prior to the NFL draft; Dee Milliner and Dion Jordan are both recovering from surgically-repaired shoulders, and both are still expected to be top-10 selections on Thursday.
But knee injuries are entirely different story. We have to go back several years for an accurate comparison.
Willis McGahee entered the NFL draft with similar question marks. The Miami running back blew out his knee on a gruesome hit in the 2003 national championship game that left many wondering how he would ever make a return to the sport.
Instead of falling in the draft, McGahee was selected 23rd overall that year—a move some questioned given his injury history. While his subsequent NFL success certainly isn’t the norm, it proves Lattimore still has the potential to be a second- or third-round pick in the 2013 draft.
Despite tearing his ACL, LCL and PCL in October, the 21-year-old expects to be ready for the start of the NFL season. He’s one of the most motivated players in this draft, and his wiliness to work hard in his recovery proves Lattimore has the makings of a true star (as quoted by Robert Klemko of USA Today):
I feel like, personally, I need three more months before I put some pads on. I know my body. I know when I'll be ready to play. It takes time I know, but at the beginning of the season, I feel like I should be ready to go.
While there are several comparisons for Lattimore’s road to recovery, no two injuries are the same. He may not be as capable of rebounding from such a devastating knee injury in a short period of time. Then again, he may come back as strong as ever.
Cecil Lammey of ESPN seems to have high hopes for Lattimore. As he implied in his response on Twitter, the South Carolina product could be a potential fit for a team like the Denver Broncos in the late second round:
Cecil Lammey @CecilLammey
“@djberto690: do you think DEN makes a play for Lattimore? probably be picked up in 2nd!” Yes and yes #Broncos2013-4-24 18:57:52
This year’s draft is as unpredictable as any, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lattimore find a home in the second round. In fact, his injury history may not be the biggest obstacle he faces.
NFL teams seem to be placing less and less emphasis on selecting running backs in the early rounds of the draft. The feature back role is diminishing in favor or two-back systems, and many teams have been lucky enough to find exceptional talent at the position in later rounds in recent years.
Given those variables, Lattimore’s landing spot is extremely hard to predict. But the talent is certainly there, and so is the work ethic. Teams won’t have to look very far to find that combination this year.
Running back rankings are wildly dissimilar this year, but few players warrant consideration ahead of Lattimore. While there are no guarantees, the South Carolina product may not have far to go to close the gap and find a home on Day 2 of the draft.