In 2018, San Francisco 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon will get his first opportunity to be a feature back in the NFL. We’ve seen what McKinnon can do with the ball in his hands, but how does the undersized back hold up in pass protection?
On the first day of free agency, the San Francisco 49ers signed McKinnon to a sizeable four-year contract appropriate for a three-down back rather than a third-down specialist:
Some questioned the move, due to McKinnon’s smaller stature. Although at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, the running back is nearly identical in size to Devonta Freeman, who scored 27 touchdowns during 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s two-year stint as offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.
Can McKinnon be a feature back in the NFL? McKinnon certainly thinks so, as does Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who recently told reporters that his former running back will be worth every penny of his $30 million contract.
When Zimmer lost rookie running back Dalvin Cook due to injury last season, he relied on McKinnon and fellow running back Latavius Murray to shoulder the load in the Vikings’ backfield. In the same interview, Zimmer commented that McKinnon improved as a runner thanks to his extended early-down work last season:
"He catches the ball extremely well out of the backfield. He became a much better runner last year. He hit the hole much better last year and accelerated out. He’s great in pass protection even though he’s a smaller guy."
Is the undersized McKinnon great in pass protection? Both his numbers and his game film tell us that he is. Pro Football Focus graded McKinnon as the NFL’s eighth best running back in pass protection last season, and his film backs up the ranking.
McKinnon may be small, but he’s freakishly strong — his 32 bench-press reps are an NFL Scouting Combine record for all running backs. He shows good footwork in order to square up and then explode toward blitzing defenders, often standing them up, or knocking them to the ground.
McKinnon never shies from contact; rather, he appears to seek it out. He throws his body toward defenders in order to protect his quarterback from last-second blitzes, and when he goes low against a much larger linemen, he makes good contact and ensures he finishes the block:
Jerick McKinnon’s film demonstrates that a blocker can overcome a lack of size with his technique, strength and attitude. The San Francisco 49ers — and especially quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — will soon benefit from their new running back’s pass blocking skills.