When the San Francisco 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon in March of 2018, there was a lot of reason for optimism.
After consistently producing while splitting reps with RBs Adrian Peterson and Dalvin Cook as a Minnesota Viking, the 49ers signed McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract.
However, an ACL tear later that year and a setback the year after that has seen the former Georgia Southern halfback miss two straight NFL seasons, including the 49ers Super Bowl run in 2019.
After recent news that McKinnon is working with Peterson for his comeback, as well as San Francisco general manager John Lynch’s recent comments, the 49ers are still figuring out who to commit too at the running back position for 2020.
The Case for McKinnon
Possibly the most impressive stat of McKinnon’s is the fact that he led the Vikings’ RBs in yards per carry for three straight seasons from 2015 to 2017. His career average is 4.0 YPC, which is pretty much the minimum for any split-carry or feature back in the NFL.
While it has to be accounted for that McKinnon will lose a step or two after a two-year hiatus and injury, his strength as a back wasn’t solely focused on speed, it also had to do with his ability to read the field and make intelligent, incisive cuts in the running lanes.
One of the best examples of this was back in Week 5 of 2017 when McKinnon took a toss to the house for a 58-yard score (about 55 seconds into the video.)
It’s a simple adjustment, but when McKinnon sees center Pat Elflein have a clear path as the lead blocker, the RB turns on the jets and cuts towards the middle of the field as he hits the whole. Easy touchdown.
Mostert and Coleman have respective strengths over McKinnon, but the other area that the veteran is strongest is as a pass-catching option.
Coleman has 113 career receptions and averages 10.5 yards per catch, which is better than McKinnon’s 6.9. But the former Viking has a better catch-rate on 142 receptions, sitting just below 75 percent compared to Coleman’s 68.9 percent.
McKinnon’s resume and identity are valuable enough for many NFL rosters, but it’s just a matter of if it’s worth it to the 49ers.
The Case Against McKinnon
The 49ers smartly restructured McKinnon’s contract after his second season out of action, but would still have to take a loss on $4 million in dead cap over 2020 and 2021 if they cut him.
This may seem like a case to keep him, and it is, but it is also the type of sacrifice the 49ers could make if they thought one of the younger UDFA options would be a better value and contributor.
Lynch recently spoke on McKinnon’s recovery to The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, stating he was cautious but hopeful.
“I think there’s always that critical last juncture of a rehab where you go from running straight ahead and even trying to simulate some of the cutting that goes on at that position, specifically,” Lynch said. “Then, you go play football and it becomes much more reactive. And that’s where he struggled. He’s continued to put in work. There are some positive signs that we’re on a better track.”
Lynch also spoke on McKinnon’s catching ability, saying, “we had a clear vision of what he could bring for [the 49ers.]” However, McKinnon’s catching ability shouldn’t be his selling point.
While his numbers are better than Coleman’s, they’re not absurdly better. It’s useful to have a productive RB in the receiving department, but is it worth nearly $3 million a season?
The other issue is that McKinnon’s chances to earn more carries seem unlikely if Mostert and Coleman remain healthy. Coleman averages a slightly better 4.3 yards per carry than McKinnon’s 4.0, but Mostert’s limited snaps haven’t stopped the 49er from consistently breaking off chunks, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in his career.
How or where the 49ers use McKinnon will rely on his health and performance coming up to the regular season. Really, until he’s able to stack up next to Coleman, Mostert and the UDFAs, San Francisco won’t make their decision.
However, if one of those rookies impress while McKinnon continues to get back up to speed, there is a chance that the 49ers will take on 2020 without him.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, MT. Follow and reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier.