SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Marcus Lattimore won’t have to look far for inspiration to make it in the NFL after a devastating knee injury. He’ll find it standing next to him with the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers took a chance during Saturday’s NFL draft by using a fourth-round selection on Lattimore, the South Carolina running back who suffered a career-threatening right knee injury last season just one year after tearing ligaments in his left knee.
San Francisco took a similar gamble several years ago when it spent a third-round selection on Frank Gore, who had suffered torn ligaments in each of his knees a year apart at the University of Miami before declaring for the NFL draft after his junior season.
That risk turned into high reward for San Francisco as Gore developed into a four-time Pro Bowl star on his way to becoming the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. The 49ers are hopeful of future rewards from Lattimore after making him one of their seven selections during Saturday’s final leg of the draft.
The 49ers also looked elsewhere in the fourth round to add firepower to their offense by selecting wide receiver Quinton Patton out of Louisiana Tech three picks ahead of Lattimore. San Francisco addressed defensive needs in the fifth round with lineman Quinton Dial of Alabama and in the sixth round with linebacker Nick Moody of Florida State.
The 49ers completed their 11-player draft haul in the seventh round by selecting South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels with the No. 237 overall pick, Iowa State offensive tackle Carter Bykowski at No. 246 and Rutgers cornerback Marcus Cooper at No. 252.
“Excitement was in the air from day one through today,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said late Saturday afternoon. “When we get this entire rookie class together and walking out to the field, it’s going to be one impressive-looking group.”
The most intriguing pick is Lattimore, who figures he’s in the right place next to the right people for a successful comeback after declaring for the NFL following his junior season.
“It’s still surreal to me,” Lattimore said after the 49ers made him the No. 131 overall pick. “This is a great opportunity with a great organization and I just can’t wait to get there. I’m so excited I get to work with all the great running backs and everybody on that team and be a part of that running backs family.”
Lattimore is particularly anxious to meet Gore, who helped Lattimore through some dark days last season after a gruesome knee injury that left his leg pointing the wrong way. Lattimore dislocated his knee and tore three ligaments in it during an Oct. 27 game against Tennessee.
Lattimore received a phone call a few days later from Gore, who got Lattimore’s number from 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who played with Lattimore at South Carolina. Gore, having experienced the same kind of ordeal before he joined the 49ers in 2005, told Lattimore to remain strong.
“Right after it happened, I doubted myself and I lost hope,” Lattimore said. “But I got a chance to talk to Frank Gore, I got a chance to talk to Willis McGahee, and I realized everything happens for a reason. (Gore) knew he could come back from what he had and he worked hard and was determined. He told me to keep that positive mindset, and that’s what I’ve been doing these past five, six months.”
Lattimore said he’s on track “to be good to put on pads in three or four months” as he attempts to add punch to a backfield that includes Gore and youngsters Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James. Hunter, Gore’s backup the past two seasons, is returning from a torn Achilles tendon that ended his season last year after 11 games.
Despite the injuries to both knees the past two seasons, Lattimore still set South Carolina school records with 38 career rushing touchdowns and 41 total touchdowns in just 29 games. The NCAA’s Freshman of the Year in 2010, Lattimore rushed for 2,677 yards in three abbreviated seasons.
“Marcus Lattimore – unique player, unique person,” Harbaugh said. “Can’t say enough about the mental toughness this young man has displayed. Nothing keeps him down. He’s dazzling as a runner, electric as a ball carrier, and we’re betting that he’ll be able to overcome the setback with the injury.
“I love the aggressive mental approach he has taken through this whole process, but we’re going to slow down the aggressive physical things and make sure Marcus is 100 percent healthy before he goes out there on the field. If he doesn’t play this year, then he doesn’t play this year. But I think if anybody can overcome what he’s been through, it’s him, Marcus Lattimore.”
The selection of Patton continues San Francisco’s offseason upgrade at the receiver position, where the 49ers earlier this year traded a sixth-round selection to the Baltimore Ravens to acquire veteran Anqan Boldin.
The 49ers are looking for more help for the team’s No. 1 wideout, Michael Crabtree, who had a career season in 2012. San Francisco isn’t expected to re-sign free agent Randy Moss, and complementary receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams both are coming off serious knee injuries they suffered late last season.
The team also got nothing out of its first-round selection in last year’s draft, A.J. Jenkins, who did not catch a pass during his rookie season. Patton is expected to immediately compete for playing time after recording 104 receptions for 1,392 yards and 13 touchdowns as a senior last year. He also could find an opportunity as a kick returner.
“I’m open to whatever they need me to do,” Patton said. “I’m trying to make an immediate impact on my team in the best way I can. (I’m) an ultimate team player and ultimate competitor out there on the field. It doesn’t matter what it is, we’ll just do it.”
After using three of their top four picks on defensive players during the draft’s first two days, the 49ers returned to that side of the ball with Dial and Moody.
San Francisco used a second-round selection Friday to draft Florida State’s Cornellius “Tank” Carradine to fortify the team’s defensive front wall, then added Dial three rounds later to further strengthen an area in which the team lost two of its top players during free agency earlier this year. There could be opportunities for both in San Francisco’s 3-4 defensive alignment after the 49ers lost starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency and Rickey Jean Francois, the top reserve in their line rotation for several seasons, signed with the Indianapolis Colts.
The versatile Moody is a candidate for multiple roles after starting at both safety and linebacker during his college career. Moody spent three seasons at safety with the Seminoles before moving to outside linebacker last year. At 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, he also has potential to move to inside linebacker in San Francisco’s 3-4 scheme and could become a physical presence on special teams.
The 49ers believe they might have a find among their final picks in Daniels, whom Harbaugh can envision helping the team in several ways. Daniels passed for 2,078 yards and rushed for 426 yards as a senior last year and also played some defensive back during his career at South Florida.
“You wonder with the athleticism, just how many ways could he contribute to this team and this roster,” Harbaugh said. “The quarterback position, and he could be a running back, he could be a wide receiver, he could be a kick and punt returner. The idea of a Swiss army knife comes up again. He’s a tremendous athlete with great foot quickness and we just have to see how many things he can be good at.”