49ers Marcus Lattimore

There have been a number of stories and updates lately on Marcus Lattimore, the San Francisco 49ers running back who was a superhero in college before suffering a gruesome knee injury. Never in franchise history has there been more curiosity and excitement surrounding a fourth-rounder before he played a single down, but that’s how good Lattimore was at South Carolina.

Plus, fans have unwavering confidence that the nation’s leading surgeons can get athletes back to 100% (as long as they’re younger than 30).

Plus, Lattimore is an engaging fellow who might someday win the Garry Niver Award (the local beat writers’ version of the media good-guy award), IF he blossoms into a starting-caliber player. 

For many fans, that “IF” should actually be a “WHEN.” Lattimore seems to possess the drive, heart and intelligence to overcome any obstacle, so I don’t blame anyone who hopes for great things. However, expecting 1,000-yard seasons from a player who’s dealt with the kind of pain and self-doubt Lattimore has faced … well, it seems like it might be a bit much. Many fans seem to think Lattimore could even have a breakout season in 2014, and that seems especially unlikely.

I talked with Lattimore back in January, before the rest of the team headed to Green Bay to face the Packers in the Wild Card round.

Q: You probably get asked this a lot, about percentage or whatever, but you talked about getting stronger. Do you feel like you’re at the level you were at in college, or a little bit below?

Lattimore: I’m almost there. I still need three or four more months, but I’m almost there. I feel it getting better.

In less than a week it’ll be exactly four months since our conversation, and Lattimore still isn’t 100%.

I’m not interested in getting included on Frank Gore’s list of doubters. If anyone can make it back, it’s Lattimore. Reporters aren’t allowed many chances to see how players spend their time, but Lattimore’s presence was impossible miss throughout his rookie season. He was always doing something on the rehab field with a trainer, and maximum effort seemed to be the norm.

However, it’s difficult enough to stay on the field, let alone make an impact, as an NFL rusher. That’s the case for guys who come into the league injury-free, and Lattimore still doesn’t sound fully confident in his right knee.

This could be why the 49ers didn’t release Gore or ask him to restructure his contract. The comparisons between Lattimore and Gore are obvious (great character, willingness/ability to be complete players, severe injuries to both knees in college), but Gore suffered ACL tears in each knee while he was at Miami. Lattimore suffered an ACL tear in his left knee as a sophomore, and suffered an extraordinarily horrific injury to his right knee as a junior (all three ligaments were torn, and Dr. James Andrews compared them to “hamburger meat” after Lattimore’s surgery).

The 49ers don’t start their season until September, but even though it seems like the draft is taking forever to get here, the preseason will be here before we know it. The point is not that I think Lattimore is a lost cause. Far from it. But expectations should be tamed over the coming months, because the 49ers probably won’t reap the rewards of their 2013 draft “steal” until the 2015 season.