On the first day of free agency, the San Francisco 49ers made Jerick McKinnon one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL. Here’s what head coach Kyle Shanahan sees in McKinnon, and why the dual-threat RB will be a key piece of the Niners’ offense in 2018.


When the San Francisco 49ers signed former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon to a four-year contract worth up to $30 million, the initial reviews of the signing were mixed. Reporters who don’t follow the 49ers closely called the deal surprising and eyebrow-raising; but those more familiar with what head coach Kyle Shanahan looks for in a running back understood why the Niners felt the need to win the bidding war over the dual-threat back: Jerick McKinnon is what the 49ers’ offense was lacking in 2017 — and what it needs in order to become elite in 2018.

While fans are familiar with the cliché that today’s NFL is a passing game, few realize how much of a passing game it truly is. A strong passing game is so important because an offense’s other option — running the ball — is an ineffective method for scoring points. On average, every time a team runs the ball, the team is less likely to score on that drive. This fact doesn’t mean that teams should totally abandon the running game — running the ball does have value in keeping defenses honest, managing the clock and controlling defensive personnel — but the pass should set up the run, not the other way around.

Shanahan understands this, which I outlined last year after studying his historic 2016 Atlanta Falcons offense. Shanahan’s Falcons led the NFL in points scored, points-per-drive, yards-per-play and Football Outsiders’ DVOA by attacking all portions of the field with all potential eligible receivers. Shanahan utilized an inordinate amount of heavy sets, and then threw out of these heavy sets at the highest rate in the league. If defenses countered with sub-packages, the Falcons would run the ball. As long as Shanahan kept defenses guessing, Atlanta’s offense was unstoppable.

As the 49ers’ new head coach, Shanahan wanted to implement a similar style of offense in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the 2017 49ers lacked an important piece: a pass-catching running back. In 2016, the running-back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman accounted for 883 yards through the air on 85 receptions. Prior to last season, running back Carlos Hyde had 50 total catches over his three-year career, and rookie RB Matt Breida caught just 22 passes over three college seasons.

In 2017, Shanahan force-fed his two backs to 80 receptions, but the duo turned the catches into just 530 total yards. On pass attempts to Hyde, QBs recorded an overall quarterback rating of just 69.8 — the worst in the league for running backs with at least 70 targets. When passing to Breida, their quarterback rating was even lower, at 69.2. Meanwhile, Jerick McKinnon was sixth on the 70-target list, surpassing stud receiving backs like LeSean McCoy, Christian McCaffrey and Theo Riddick — which leads us to the first of four reasons Shanahan fought so hard to sign his new feature back:


Value in the Passing Game

Shanahan has little use for a between-the-tackles runner like Hyde who adds no value in the passing game. Hyde provided a number of explosive plays on the ground, but his longest pass reception was just 18 yards, which was quite a feat for a running back with 88 targets. While Hyde’s receiving and pass-blocking grades from Pro Football Focus were both dead last in the league, McKinnon graded in the top-8 in both categories:



McKinnon has breakaway speed, which he demonstrated during his 4.41 second 40-yard-dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. The back is a threat to score from anywhere on the field, via both the running game and the passing game. He’s dangerous in space, difficult to catch in the open field, and has even been used as a kick returner, which Shanahan had the opportunity to witness firsthand last preseason:



McKinnon — who played quarterback, running back and wide receiver in college — can line up anywhere on the field, including behind center in the wildcat formation. Expect Shanahan, who often spreads out defenses by motioning his backs to the outside, to use McKinnon at a variety of positions on the field — including in the slot, where he particularly excels in the red zone:


Strength and Toughness

Many fans took issue with a blogger who recently described McKinnon as “small” and the 49ers’ running game as “feather-weight.” While McKinnon —  nearly identical in size to Freeman — is just 5-foot-9, the implication that he is weak couldn’t be farther from the truth. McKinnon is a star in the weight room, can bench press twice his weight and squat three times his weight, and holds the NFL Scouting Combine record for bench press reps by a running back:

About the Author: Chris Wilson

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