49ers training camp: Jerick McKinnon a name to watch in 2020

Jerick McKinnon #28 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Jerick McKinnon #28 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /
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The 49ers haven’t received any production from Jerick McKinnon the last two years because of injury. Yet he’s a player to watch in training camp.

There’s no other way to say it: Running back Jerick McKinnon‘s tenure with the San Francisco 49ers has been frustrating.

McKinnon, a prized free-agent pickup in 2018 and someone who was supposed to fully invigorate head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, has found himself on injured reserve in back-to-back years after suffering a torn ACL just days before his inaugural campaign with the Niners was set to kick off.

Now fully healthy, McKinnon and Shanahan are hoping for what could turn into a breakout season for the 28-year-old veteran.

Yes, San Francisco’s backfield is crowded with McKinnon joining forces with fellow returning tailbacks Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson. Undrafted rookies JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed are also in the mix, too. So it’s not surprising to think McKinnon might see his touches decrease from a normal expected level, especially with him coming back from injury.

But that’s an aspect for why the former Minnesota Viking is a player to watch this training camp. It’s going to be interesting seeing how much he’s capable of doing, considering he hasn’t done much by the way of the football field in two years.

It’s what McKinnon can offer, however, that should make 49ers fans excited for the upcoming season. And it’s why McKinnon should draw attention during camp, too.

Jerick McKinnon’s stock value with 49ers

Last year, Shanahan primarily started Coleman and featured him early in games frequently against eight-man defensive boxes. This was intended to wear down the defenses, while Shanahan observed where the weaknesses were.

As the games drew on, Mostert would often be the beneficiary of those chunk-yardage pickups when defenses were tired.

Yet one of the elements missing from Shanahan’s offense was his tailbacks showcasing their pass-catching skills. Not one Niners runner recorded more than 21 receptions last year. And while Coleman is perfectly capable of doing this, his use primarily came as a first- and second-down option to run the ball.

McKinnon, meanwhile, boasted 51 receptions his final year with the Vikings.

This is something ESPN’s Nick Wagoner pointed out, too, saying how McKinnon’s pass-catching skills are going to be what set him apart:

"One of the missing elements in Kyle Shanahan’s offense in the past two years has been a reliable pass-catching tailback as they didn’t have a back with more than 33 catches in 2018 or 2019. McKinnon was signed to play that role and now seems to finally be over the knee injury that has cost him the past two seasons. If healthy, expect him to consistently find his way on the field and offer an explosive pass-catching complement to Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman."

But the question about McKinnon’s health will be there. Missing two years and returning from an ACL tear is no simple task. One can understand some of the proverbial rust and the need to get McKinnon’s “football legs” back underneath him.

Yet seeing just how well his surgically repaired knee responds to on-field activities and practices is going to add another wrinkle and element, both during camp and the regular season.

Fortunately, at least according to The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, this doesn’t seem to be as big a concern.

“I’m bullish on McKinnon returning to full health,” Barrows said. “He’s been pushing his surgically repaired knee more strenuously than he did last year, and so far it’s responded.”

Good news.

A year ago, Shanahan made it a point to let each running back determine his own role on the offense during the regular season. Assuming the 49ers again keep four on the roster, it’s likely Coleman will resume those early first- and second-down duties with Mostert having a shot at those big-gain attempts in the second half.

McKinnon, meanwhile, likely winds up being that third-down option out of the backfield, serving as a safety valve on screens and dump-off options. The fourth spot on the roster will go to whoever out of the remaining bunch performs the best in camp.

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And, hopefully, McKinnon can spark that conversation and put himself towards the top of touches between now and Week 1.

Hat tip to 49ers Webzone for the find.