The 49ers on Wednesday signed their first offensive skill player of the new league year, bringing in running back Jerick McKinnon from Minnesota on a four-year deal. At first glance, he looks like a perfect plug-and-play weapon for Kyle Shanahan's offense. He's explosive, versatile, can play on all three downs, and brings it in the passing game.
At 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, he keeps the backfield on the smaller side, but isn't really limited by by his stature. McKinnon offers big-play ability, and should be the favorite to lead the 49ers' committee on Sundays.
We looked at the package of tools McKinnon brings to the Bay Area and coach Shanahan's offense in particular.
With the ball in his hands, McKinnon doesn't look too far off from Matt Breida, who he's been reunited with from Georgia Southern. They may not be exactly the same height/weight, but they’re both shifty sub-6-foot players with quick feet that are threats to go the distance if they get to the second level. It's also not a surprise that they've been on the same team twice now, considering the staffs on those teams were likely looking for the same traits in their backs.
The difference is McKinnon has been doing it in the NFL for four years, so he has a reputation and is a more polished player at the moment.
As a ball carrier, McKinnon does not have any limitations. The whole playbook is open to him. A common concern with "undersized" backs is that they're not built to run inside, or struggle in between the tackles. During his stretch in Minnesota, McKinnon showed he can run inside.
In that area he displays patience, vision, and active feet.
Contact balance and explosiveness also shows up in McKinnon's game when running between the tackles. He hits the hole and is up to top speed fast enough to break through arm tackle attempts (also shown above in the 2nd-and-10 run against the Browns).
One thing you’ll notice with McKinnon is that if there’s congestion at the line, he can quickly diagnose and bounce the run outside. He did this often, turning potential runs for loss or no-gains into positive yardage. As a weapon, he kind of keeps the wind in the offense's sails.
This following run is a Shanahan play, and one that demonstrates why McKinnon is the quintessential fit for this offense as a runner. This is an outside zone toss out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). It draws a light box, gets O-linemen outside the numbers and into the second level engaging more defensive backs, and allows a fast enough back a shot at the end zone.
It already projects to work quite well with uber-athletic tackle Joe Staley, newly signed center Weston Richburg and potentially former first-round pick and 2015 Outland Trophy winner Joshua Garnett. This unit alone forms a new muscle for the 49ers' offense as it builds around and looks to take the pressure off Jimmy Garoppolo.
And that segues nicely to the dynamic McKinnon offers in the passing attack.
One of the immediate takeaways from the McKinnon signing is what the 49ers acquired for their passing offense.
He's one of the better receiving backs in the league, which will particularly help when running screens. You need athletic blockers and an explosive yet patient back to execute that facet well. With Staley and Richburg, and McKinnon running behind them, San Francisco is in position to field a very effective screen game in 2018.
What makes McKinnon good at this are the little things. Timing and positioning matter. He routinely gets to his spot, looks the ball in and accelerates well up the field, following his blockers. As much as it was an offensive staple for Minnesota, it can be in San Francisco.
Helping McKinnon here is that he's a natural receiver.
He’s got soft hands, makes good focus grabs and gets yards after the catch. This is how he accrued 51 receptions for 421 yards—at 8.2 yards per catch—and two touchdowns in 2017, all career highs.
McKinnon is a unique player you scheme for. Shanahan’s not just going to run plays and hope McKinnon gets looks. He’s going to script plays directly to him. That’s the type of player he is. The Vikings knew it, used him accordingly, and reaped the benefits.
They used misdirection in blocking assignments and routes by the receivers to pull the defense away from where McKinnon (and the ball) was going. They also threw to him and ran him from a number of locations on offense. And the Vikes strategized it in ways to work the length of the football field, as well as deploying these carefully-crafted plays in the red zone.
In scheming to McKinnon to rip chunk plays in the middle of the field, take a look at this play-action throwback to the RB, who fills in the flat that receiver Adam Thielen vacated. Quarterback Case Keenum rolls off the play fake to his right, eyes the deep shot but quickly checks down to McKinnon, who he knows is all alone in the flat with room to run.
The following is a similar concept in that it clears out space on one side of the field for McKinnon to catch the ball and run. The receivers run across the field and the offensive line blocks down, pulling the defense with, as McKinnon drifts through to the unprotected part of the field.
It's a high-percentage play as an easy catch and run, and has big upside with McKinnon's game-breaking speed.
McKinnon being a chess piece coupled with his ability to make things happen on "bang-bang" or timing plays translates to him being a weapon in the red zone. On a couple occasions Minnesota relied on his versatility and quickness to get the ball in the end zone.
Here's McKinnon in the slot in a goal situation. The Vikings use the back as part of a rub route concept, counting on his quick speed to get free and to the pylon on this timing throw from Keenum. He does and it's an uncontested six points for Minnesota.
Even in the run game the Vikings schemed to get him the ball from different locations, like you've seen with speed receivers such as Taylor Gabriel or Ted Ginn Jr. Here McKinnon lines up in the slot and scores from a yard out on the jet sweep. It's another quick-hitting play that can be effective when offenses are limited on space in the red zone.
Fit with 49ers:
McKinnon is earning top-five running back money, and was likely led to believe during negotiations that he'd be the first back to trot onto the field on game day. He's also the second jack-of-all-trades player Shanahan's Niners have added to the offense in as many seasons (Kyle Jusczyzk via Baltimore in 2017). Last year McKinnon had 991 yards from scrimmage and five scores. Most believe he has a higher ceiling in this situation with Shanahan and revered position coach Bobby Turner. It's possible the soon-to-be 26-year-old McKinnon has a career year, and becomes a focal point on offense.
Media courtesy Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune