marcus-lattimore 1The 49ers have done some interesting things with the position of running back over the last couple of years. While the addition of Kendall Hunter in 2011 made sense — he provided a dimension of quickness to the 49ers’ backfield as well as a way to conserve Frank Gore — they went even smaller and quicker with LaMichael James in the second round last year. While Frank Gore looked as sturdy as ever in 2012, he can’t be counted on as the 49ers’ feature back for too much longer. He’ll turn 30 in May, officially putting him at the age of almost certain regression considering his position. Can the 49ers move forward with two small running backs and the occasional Anthony Dixon cameo? I’m not so sure.

Given the position’s immediate solidity, most people don’t see running back as a high priority for the 49ers come April. There is, however, later-round value in Marcus Lattimore, and it’s someone the 49ers might want to consider.

In his freshman year at South Carolina, Lattimore rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns. He was having an equally spectacular season last year, rushing for 818 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven games before a horrifying knee injury abruptly ended his season (and no, I will not link it — you can Youtube it yourself if you’re so inclined). It was his second knee injury in as many seasons, and although he was once considered a future prototype bell cow for whatever NFL team was lucky enough to draft him, he’s now considered a fourth round pick and a risky choice even then.

The length of his legs is what has so many scouts concerned. He’s 6-0, 220 lbs, but much of his height comes from his legs. It makes his knees a vulnerability when being tackled, and after having his right one fully reconstructed just last year, the chances of a recurring injury are even higher.

The flip-side of the Lattimore coin is how decidedly weak this year’s running back class is. Most mock drafts don’t have a single running back going in the first round (Walter Football recently added Alabama RB Eddie Lacy to the Broncos at the 28th overall pick). Will teams be interested in risking a third or fourth round pick on a player like Lattimore?

From CBS Sports’ Rob Rang:

Strengths: Outstanding burst and balance to stay on his feet through contact. Strong finisher, lowering his pads and continuing to pump his legs.

Very good at keeping defenders off balance, showing excellent acceleration, anticipation and footwork. Natural balance and feel between the tackles with good vision and patience to follow his blocks. Reliable receiving target, adjusting well to the ball with good focus.

Never goes down easy and rarely goes out of bounds, running with toughness and confidence. Good effort in pass protection and not shy about giving up his body. Taking better care of himself off-the-field with improved practice habits and stronger work ethic.

Weaknesses: Lacks elite speed to consistently win the edge or out-run defenders. Strong durability concerns with two serious knee injuries the past two seasons and currently rehabbing a right knee injury from last October. Didn’t look 100 percent this past season after his 2011 left knee injury and wore down late in games. Will he ever be able to return to form or will he a shell of what he once was?

Sound familiar? Gore suffered two devastating knee injuries during his career at the University of Miami, and after three rounds of teams deciding Gore was damaged goods, the 49ers picked him up and you know the rest. Lattimore’s strengths, from “excellent acceleration, anticipation and footwork” to giving “good effort in pass protection,” all sound a lot like the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher.

San Francisco owns three picks in the third and fourth rounds (74th, 93rd and a TBA), and according to NinersNation, they’re likely to get another compensatory pick in the third or fourth. Should the 49ers add Lattimore to an already crowded running back corps? Like Tyrann Mathieu, he’s high risk, but the reward could be another decade of fantastic ground game.