McKinnon settling into role as 49ers featured back
SANTA CLARA, CALIF.
Jerick McKinnon had a steep learning curve when he arrived in San Francisco as the highly paid featured back for the 49ers.
After four seasons as mostly a backup in Minnesota, McKinnon was one of San Francisco’s big-ticket additions in free agency this offseason and took some time to learn coach Kyle Shanahan’s complex new offense.
“When I first got here, I was lost. I was really lost,” McKinnon said. “My head was spinning. It’s different protections I have to learn, different concepts I have to learn and basically I have to take my whole way of thinking for four years and switch it up to a new one.
“I guess it’s complex when you’re new to it, but once you start studying it, you get it. I’m starting to get it.”
McKinnon has shown just that early in training camp. He broke a long run around the left side on the team’s first 11-on-11 drill of the summer and also has made several catches out of the backfield.
Those skills are why the 49ers gave the career backup a $30 million, four-year contract this offseason. McKinnon will get paid $12 million in 2018. Only Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley have signed contracts that will pay them more this season, according to spotrac.com.
But McKinnon feels no added pressure because of the high price tag.
“I’ve had the same mindset I’ve had since my rookie year, which is coming in and working,” he said. “A lot of guys get contracts and some of them get content. For me, it’s about staying the same and continuing to work and showing my teammates how I work and what I bring to the table and pushing everybody around me.”
McKinnon spent four years in Minnesota after being drafted in the third round in 2014 out of Georgia Southern. He has rushed for 1,918 yards with an average of 4.0 yards per carry, has 142 catches for 984 yards, and has scored 12 touchdowns.
McKinnon had his most productive season last year, when he ran for a career-high 570 yards while setting personal bests with 51 catches for 421 yards.
McKinnon replaces Carlos Hyde, who left as a free agent for Cleveland.
McKinnon has more speed and is a better receiving threat than Hyde and should fit well into Shanahan’s offense. But Shanahan said McKinnon’s strengths start as a runner.
“You have to be a good running back to truly get the effects of being good in the pass game because if you’re only good in the pass game, then they can just treat you as a receiver and it’s different,” he said. “So, it starts with being a running back and we really like him as a running back.
“We studied every run he had in Minnesota. I think he fits in the type of runs we do very well. He’s got the speed. He’s got the cutting ability and he’s got the toughness to run through arm tackles. Then the pass game is the huge bonus. He is a matchup issue. He’s very good in his routes. ... Just versatility-wise, he’s going to help us a lot.”
Having a running back who is a threat in the passing game is a crucial part of Shanahan’s offense. The Niners ranked third in the NFL last year with 113 receptions out of the backfield, up from just 67 the previous year under Chip Kelly.
While Hyde had a team-high 59 catches last season, he wasn’t particularly productive. He averaged just 5.9 yards on those catches and turned only 28.8 percent of them into first downs.
Those numbers are significantly below McKinnon’s 8.3 yards per catch and 39.2 percent first downs as his skills make him a better option in the passing game.
“Jerick is a unique talent,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “He can do things out of the backfield. You can line him up in the slot. ... He can do so many different things that it’s hard for a defense.
“What do you put on him? A linebacker, a safety, a corner? It’s a pick your poison type of thing so it makes my job a whole lot easier.”