49ers’ 2019 ‘Who Is?’ series: Running back Jerick McKinnon

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 11: Jerick McKinnon #21 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates a first down 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 celebrates a first down 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) /

The San Francisco 49ers made running back Jerick McKinnon a high-profile free-agent signing in 2018, only to lose him to an ACL tear. What does his future hold in 2019, especially after some roster changes this offseason?

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan argued his offense suffered a massive blow and had to be rethought after the team lost running back Jerick McKinnon to a season-ending ACL tear at the close of the 2018 preseason.

It’s possible Shanahan viewed this injury as a bigger setback than losing quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to his season-ending ACL tear a few weeks later.

Either way, McKinnon’s setback after signing a lucrative four-year free-agent deal with the Niners in 2018 was a major setback. Especially given Shanahan envisioned the former Minnesota Vikings as a featured dual-threat weapon, who would give his offense an entirely new dynamic.

Even if McKinnon was never featured in such a role, previously.

Jerick McKinnon Rushing & Receiving Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/18/2019.

We’ll never know if McKinnon would have provided the sought-after impact. What we do know, however, is his absence opened the door for fellow running back Matt Breida to establish himself as a legitimate rushing option.

Entering 2019, San Francisco’s situation at running back is even more crowded. The team brought aboard another Shanahan favorite, Tevin Coleman, as a free agent during the offseason. Both he and Breida could easily take snaps away from McKinnon this season, especially if the latter is still hobbled by his ACL recovery.

What will McKinnon have to do to assert himself more in 2019?

Why Jerick McKinnon Improves in 2019

While the ACL tear is a setback, the fact McKinnon remained absent from both organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, while Garoppolo was on the field, isn’t entirely alarming. Running backs are required to do a bit more lateral movement than quarterbacks, in most cases, and the 49ers don’t want to rush McKinnon back prematurely.

Limiting McKinnon’s load might also do some good, too. During his four years with the Vikings, McKinnon never served as a primary bell cow. Coming off a serious injury, forcing him back into a heavy workload could do more harm than good.

Instead, Shanahan will likely look to McKinnon to serve as an outside-the-tackles runner, doubling as a pass-catching tailback.

McKinnon already showcased those abilities, albeit in a limited role. And with Shanahan’s innate ability to create opportunities for all his receiving targets, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the 27 year old post equally impressive numbers, even if the total number of touches winds up being at the same rate as he saw in Minnesota.

Why Jerick McKinnon Regresses

It’s hard to make an impact when you’re deeper on the depth chart, and there’s a real possibility McKinnon loses a would-be featured role to a player like Coleman, perhaps even Breida, who is a stronger natural runner.

Both Coleman and Breida have already established themselves in Shanahan’s offense, Coleman under Shanahan with the Atlanta Falcons back in 2015 and 2016, and Breida last year.

McKinnon, meanwhile, has yet to emerge as a viable option. And if he struggles early, either due to his injury or for whatever other reasons, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him relegated to a No. 3 support role.

As far as those reasons, McKinnon’s workload has never been high, and now the injury factor comes into play.

Should any of those cut into McKinnon’s efforts this year, his 2019 campaign could wind up being a disappointment.

Expected Role with the 49ers in 2019

It would cost the Niners $5.7 million in dead money if they were to cut McKinnon after July 1, with only $50,000 in cap savings. So it’s safe to say he’ll be on the roster this season, if healthy.

Health is a big factor, though, as McKinnon has yet to partake in offseason practices. Fortunately, all accounts seem to point to him being ready for training camp, so that’s good.

Shanahan already told reporters his running backs will essentially determine their own roles during training camp and the preseason, so it’s a mere prediction where McKinnon ends up on the depth chart and in what role.

Fortunately, however, the added depth allows Shanahan to get creative here. Even if a player like Coleman is on the field, the 49ers can line him up out of the slot or double their halfbacks, with either McKinnon or Breida in the backfield as well.

Simply put, one shouldn’t fall in love with a depth chart. Each one of San Francisco’s rushers will get a fair share of touches, provided the production and health factors are all in place.

Expect McKinnon to receive roughly an equal amount of receptions and rushes this season, while his pass-blocking abilities might help keep him on the field in 3rd-and-long situations.

Next. How Kyle Shanahan deploys his running backs in 2019. dark

If he thrives in such a role, McKinnon’s future beyond 2019 will look that much better, justifying the Niners’ contract given to him.