Fans never got to see what running back Jerick McKinnon could do for the San Francisco 49ers, as an ACL injury thwarted his 2018 campaign. But what about this upcoming year?
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan indicated he would have to make some drastic changes to his offensive game plan after then-newly acquired running back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL at the end of the 2018 preseason.
On a positive note, McKinnon’s season-ending injury opened up the door for second-year running back Matt Breida to be a household name. But while that was a good thing, one could draw a correlation between McKinnon’s absence and some of the many struggles Shanahan’s offense had over the course of the year.
Particularly in the passing game.
A little Football 101 here, especially if you understand how a pass-catching running back can change the offense’s outlook. Without diving too deeply in the Xs and Os, backfield receivers can often draw mismatches and exploit openings, particularly in zone defenses, which tends to open things up for other pass catchers at the boundaries and within the slot.
Shanahan tried to make Breida a pass-catching tailback. But his 27 receptions in 2018 were just over half the number McKinnon recorded the year before with the Minnesota Vikings (51). And that was a supplementary role.
There are a lot of other factors at play here, of course, but one could argue McKinnon’s absence had some influence on no Niners wide receiver reaching 500 receiving yards last year.
Before his injury, Niner Noise explored the kind of weapon McKinnon was expected to be in Shanahan’s scheme. You can get the idea here, and we won’t bother rehashing the same film breakdowns as before.
All that said, how should McKinnon impact the 49ers offense in 2019?
The pass-catching abilities are notable. The fewest receptions McKinnon has had in a season was 21 back in 2015 when he started a total of zero games. Expect that number to increase, possibly on an exponential basis, and open up things for San Francisco’s other pass catchers.
There’s possibly going to be one downside, however. McKinnon isn’t known for being elusive, having averaged a mere 2.67 yards after first contact, which ranked 28th out of 50 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus. On the plus side, though, PFF ranked McKinnon the No. 6 overall tailback among this same group of 50 with a 79.6 overall grade.
That should stand out, as will the fact the 49ers won’t have to rely on the oft-injured-yet-still-productive Breida to be a featured back, as he was for the majority of 2018.
McKinnon likely isn’t going to be the next coming of the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, or to go even further, Marshall Faulk. Not even the 49ers’ own, Roger Craig, who set that kind of standard.
Yet it wouldn’t be a shock to see McKinnon reach 1,000 rush yards, while adding another 500 through the air. Considering Shanahan’s offense managed 5,769 yards of total offense in 2018, McKinnon getting what would be a 26 percent equivalent of that would be a massive bonus to the 49ers’ offensive game plan this upcoming season.
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