In 2013, Packers running back Eddie Lacy was an instant-impact hit.
He rushed for 1,178 yards, had four games of 100 or more yards, scored 11 touchdowns and broke the Green Bay record for carries by a rookie with 284.
The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder from the University of Alabama proved to be a physical runner – able to withstand the pounding from NFL defenders – with the speed to break off runs of 60, 56 and 37 yards. He was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013.
Now, as the 49ers prepare for the 2014 season, one former NFL executive sees a young player just as good on the San Francisco roster, ready to shine in 2014.
Gil Brandt, an NFL Media senior analyst for NFL.com and former longtime leader of the Dallas Cowboys front office, lists 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore among his 10 players primed for a second-year breakout.
“I think he’s even a better running back than Eddie Lacy,” wrote Brandt this week.
Lattimore, just 22, was a standout at South Carolina, but fell to the fourth round last season because of a knee injury in his final season for the Gamecocks. But the 5-foot-11, 221-pounder is now fully recovered and is expected to get a lot of playing time this season behind starter Frank Gore.
“I think San Francisco is about to be rewarded for its patience,” wrote Brandt. “Lattimore is a tough, one-cut runner with great instincts, exactly the type of power back the 49ers like to run with, in the mold of incumbent starter Frank Gore.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lattimore get some crunch-time carries this season and become the starter by 2015, when Gore is set to hit free agency.”
Gore, who will be 31 this coming season, showed no signs of slowing down in 2013 when he rushed for 1,128 yards and carried 276 times.
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, in fact, said in March that Gore is far from finished.
“I really think Frank has three more good years,” Harbaugh told reporters. “I truly believe that. But we’re in a game of taking it one year at a time.”
Gore is entering the final year of the contract extension he signed in 2011, and is due to earn $6.45 million in 2014. If Gore has another outstanding season in 2014, it might be hard to part ways with him. After all, he does a lot of things well. He’s perhaps the best-blocking running back in the NFL as a pass protector. In 160 pass-protection situations in 2013, he didn’t allow a single sack and just three quarterback pressures.
But the 49ers are smart with their money and will have a lot of decisions to make soon about long-term contracts for quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linebacker Aldon Smith and guard Mike Iupati, among others. If Lattimore proves to be as good as Brandt believes he will be, it’s possible the 49ers could let Gore walk and establish Lattimore as their lower-cost No. 1 back in 2015.
After injuring his left knee as a sophomore at South Carolina, he came back strong. Then he injured his right knee as a junior.
Now, he says he’s ready to show what he can do.
“The left knee, it feels like nothing ever happened,” Lattimore told the Associated Press recently. “The right knee, it feels great. Both feel balanced. I’ve got my speed and I rarely get any soreness (after workouts).”
He says he “can’t go out there and be Superman the first day,” but is confident.
“Once I get back in the groove and take a few hits, I’ll be OK,” he said.