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Would Lattimore Have Benefited From Another Year?

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Given that he fell to the fourth round, should Marcus Lattimore have gambled and stayed another year at South Carolina? Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Given that he fell to the fourth round, should Marcus Lattimore have gambled and stayed another year at South Carolina? Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.

Everyone understands why Marcus Lattimore entered the NFL draft after his junior season.

Following a phenomenal freshman year in which he ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, Lattimore struggled with injuries (via ESPN). The running back with tons of talent had a knee tear in 2011 as a sophomore and another one in 2012 as a junior.

So it made sense for Lattimore to leave early in order to avoid a career-ending injury before he had the opportunity to get paid as a professional. That being said, a guy with tremendous potential fell all the way to the fourth round due to concerns about his durability.

The only way to alleviate those concerns would’ve been to play an injury-free senior season with the Gamecocks.

Coming back for another college year would’ve been a huge gamble for Lattimore, but it might’ve been the difference between being a sought-after first-round choice and a fourth-round afterthought. As a first rounder, Lattimore could’ve commanded much more money than he’ll get as a third or fourth-string back for the 49ers.

Again, it would’ve been a gamble. Early entry offered guaranteed money. Another college season could’ve upped his value and resulted in a bigger payday in 2014 or it could’ve gone bad and seen a career-ending injury ensure that Lattimore never earned a dime despite his undeniable skill.

At the core of the Marcus Lattimore story is an inherent problem with college football, particularly in the SEC.

Sixty-three players from the SEC were drafted in 2013 (via Yahoo). It’s clear that the SEC is a fertile ground for growing NFL prospects. But all that top talent crashing into one another for an entire season puts a great deal of wear and tear on players.

Football is a game in which injuries can happen at any moment. But beyond those haphazard blows to health, the risk of injury is increased when the future pros in the SEC are involved in the hits. And that fear of getting hurt spurs players into avoiding injury by entering the draft after their junior year.

Ace Sanders, another South Carolina standout, bolted for the NFL after just three seasons. The small-framed receiver probably figured it was worth it to take the NFL money rather than risk a senior year in which his stock could drop – a la Matt Barkley – or he could suffer an injury.

Sanders projects to be an excellent slot receiver in the NFL (via SB Nation). Given that the league is now so passing-centric, his skills are a valuable commodity. And yet, Sanders was taken in the fourth round just like Lattimore. So South Carolina gave up two quality players with tons of upside to the NFL a year early at bargain basement prices.

Ultimately this begs the question: is the SEC so good that it’s undermining college football in favor of the NFL?

While the SEC gets the prestige of being the best conference in the country, the NFL gets quality players who’ve entered the draft early due to concern about career-ending injuries. These early entries would benefit from another year in college, as it would likely increase their draft stock and result in being taken in earlier rounds. But because playing eight SEC games puts a player in harm’s way, the risk of injury outweighs the benefit of staying another year to improve draft position in order to make a few million more.

I won’t second-guess Marcus Lattimore’s decision, but I do think it’s worth wondering what could’ve happened had he returned to South Carolina. The Gamecocks with Lattimore would certainly have been an even stronger contender in the SEC. If Lattimore had duplicated his freshman year stats and played injury-free as a senior, then he’d have alleviated concerns about him being too injury prone. That would've put him back in the discussion for a possible first-round draft choice.

Even so, no running back got drafted in the first round in 2013, and Lattimore still would enter the NFL as an injury risk. 

Similarly, if Ace Sanders had opted to stay for a senior season the Gamecocks’ would’ve be a better team in 2013 and Sanders could’ve increased his draft stock. In both cases, Sanders and Lattimore ended up on teams that suit their skills and development, but each player cost himself a few million dollars by coming out early and getting drafted late.

As a first-round pick, the signing bonus is about $1 million dollars, whereas fourth-round picks typically get in the neighborhood $300,000 (all salary estimates according to Over the cap). Of course going to the NFL early means an extra year earning money as a professional. So college juniors have to weight that extra year of being a profession versus the pretige of being an early draft choice and the possible achievements they could enjoy in the final year of college.

Giovani Bernard, the first running back taken in 2013 at No. 37 overall (Cincinnati), can expect to earn about $2 million in his first two NFL seasons. By contrast, Lattimore's number is more like $1.1 million for those two years.  

From a financial perspective, Lattimore would have to be drafted in the first round in 2014 to make more money than he will as a fourth-round pick with two years of income. And even with an outstanding season at South Carolina in 2013, going in the first round would've been no sure thing. He'd still be an injury risk, and running backs are valued lower than ever by teams in the draft. Pegging him in the top half of the second round under our imaginary scenario is more likely.   

That said, Lattimore would rely on the third and fourth years of his rookie contract to pull ahead financially, hardly a guarantee for a guy with two major knee injuries entering the NFL at a position with the shortest shelf life in all of professional team sports. And that's assuming things go perfect with his rehab and during the 2013 season. Seems like an easy decision. 

Lattimore instead gets to sit on the bench, rehab and collect something like $500,000 from the 49ers this season (not to mention a signing bonus that could approach $400,000).

Both Ace Sanders and Marcus Lattimore will be richer thanks to their decision to go pro, but it's worth wondering what they will miss having left a South Carolina team with title aspirations.

It’s a tough call for juniors in the SEC. Playing against such top notch competition forges great football players that are coveted by the NFL. Unfortunately, it also raises the liklilhood of an injury that could end a career or serve as a blemish on an NFL scouting report.

Maybe if college players were paid, they wouldn’t jump to the NFL so readily. As it is, however, early entry increases roster turnover and denies fans of college football the chance to see good players grow into great players during a four-year career. It also costs players like Lattimore and Sanders money as they slip to fourth round steals instead of marquee first rounders.