49ers film room: What Jerick McKinnon brings to San Francisco’s offense

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Jerick McKinnon #21 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball in the first quarter of the game against the New Orleans Saints on September 11, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Jerick McKinnon #21 of the Minnesota Vikings carries the ball in the first quarter of the game against the New Orleans Saints on September 11, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images) /

Niner Noise explores the tape behind new San Francisco 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon and describes how he’s a seamless fit for head coach Kyle Shanahan and his offense.

The San Francisco 49ers made a change at running back on the opening day of NFL free agency, letting Carlos Hyde walk and bringing aboard former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon.

It’s a four-year deal worth up to $30 million, as reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

This is a pretty good indication head coach Kyle Shanahan plans on making McKinnon an integral part of his dynamic offense. The 25-year-old McKinnon thrived as both a split-time tailback and legitimate pass-catcher over the past four seasons in Minnesota.

And he could see his role increase under Shanahan.

In this breakdown, we’ll look at some of the film from McKinnon’s efforts and break down why San Francisco made this move.

Diving into the Stats & Analytics

McKinnon hasn’t been known as a featured back, largely splitting time with Vikings runners Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray last year.

But take a look at the numbers. Even in a support role, McKinnon has been able to contribute nicely. Especially in the passing game:

Jerick McKinnon Rushing & Receiving Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/14/2018.

Shanahan’s use of a dual-back system should be more prominent in 2018. With Matt Breida and 2017 redshirt rookie Joe Williams in tow, plus any additions in the NFL Draft, McKinnon easily winds up being a useful tool.

Pro Football Focus gave McKinnon a 51.0 elusiveness rating last year — higher than that of Hyde (45.7) and even higher than the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley (46.6).

Additionally, McKinnon’s 82.4 pass-catching PFF grade was tied for seventh best among all running backs last season.

Yeah, a pretty versatile weapon.

So how does McKinnon wind up being such a special find? Let’s take a look at the film.

Fit in the Outside-Zone Runs

Niners Wire’s Rob Lowder shared some clips of McKinnon, which are relevant to what Shanahan wants out of his tailbacks — the ability to thrive and execute in the head coach’s outside-zone running scheme and to act as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

You can see the combined footage here:

The first play stems from a 58-yard touchdown against the Chicago Bears in Week 5 on Monday Night Football.

Minnesota is in a single-back formation with trips receivers to the right of its offensive line. You’ll notice the toss from quarterback Case Keenum to McKinnon (yellow arrow), as his O-line shifts blocks to that side of the field:

Run 1
Run 1 /

The trips bunch will also help open up additional lanes, which gives McKinnon his set of gaps to exploit.

As the play develops, we start to see those emerge. McKinnon sees a lane opening behind right tackle Mike Remmers (No. 74). Thanks to some key blocks (red arrows), including a cut block to the right of the frame, it’s an easy opening to diagnose:

Run 2
Run 2 /

It also helps having Remmers blocking a cornerback on the run attempt. And if you’re looking for a perfectly executed zone-style run, here you go.

There’s one more thing to learn here, though. Chicago safety Eddie Jackson (No. 39) is the last line of defense and remains in position to tackle McKinnon. The quick reaction below might be for McKinnon to follow Remmers’ block to his right.

Instead, McKinnon recognizes an additional blocker, using a pick action to elude the would-be tackle instead of merely settling for being pushed out of bounds had he rushed to his right:

Run 3
Run 3 /

It’s off to the races at that point.

McKinnon diagnosing the best opening at the right moment, while also making the split-second decision to cut back in, is precisely what Shanahan hopes for his new tailback.

And there’s more. Let’s look at the receiving game.

How Jerick McKinnon Can Impact the 49ers Pass Game

McKinnon’s next indicative moment came a week later when the Vikings were hosting the Green Bay Packers.

With the Vikings driving to start the second quarter, on the Packers’ 27-yard line, McKinnon will flash some of his pass-catching abilities to put his offense on the board first.

Minnesota is lined up in a 12-personnel formation (two wide receivers, two tight ends and a running back), with its wideouts spread out right and TEs lined up to the left of the O-line:

Catch 1
Catch 1 /

Pre-snap motion indicates the Packers are in man coverage, and McKinnon will initially appear as a blocker in support of Keenum after he takes the snap.

McKinnon releases, however, as Green Bay brings a six-man rush:

Catch 2
Catch 2 /

Some credit goes to Keenum too, as he was able to get the ball off to McKinnon while facing in-the-face pressure.

But remember the motioned receiver, who drew the Packers defensive back to the opposite side of the field? That serves to open up a void in which McKinnon can accelerate.

He’ll need to. As shown below, he has two Green Bay defenders hot on his tail:

Catch 3
Catch 3 /

Fortunately for the Vikings, McKinnon is able to elude the would-be tacklers for a 27-yard catch-and-run touchdown, showcasing his speed and elusiveness all along.

For the 49ers, this is a valuable skill set. PFF gave McKinnon a 75.0 pass-blocking grade last year — eighth best among running backs. Remaining in the backfield as a blocker is worthwhile, but the ability to release and act as a receiving target, with speed, only makes him more valuable.

It’s not likely McKinnon winds up being a bell-cow tailback for Shanahan. Yet he’s more than just a serviceable weapon.

Next: FanSided's 2018 NFL free agency tracker

If anything, Shanahan got the runner he covets for his offense. And that should make for a pretty exciting backfield attack for 2018 and beyond.