Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are nine days away from the start of training camp, scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Let’s highlight running back Jerick McKinnon, our ninth-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Jerick McKinnon
On the morning of Mar. 14, hours before free agency officially kicked off, the 49ers agreed to terms with McKinnon on a four-year, $30 million contract, including $11.7 million guaranteed. It made the former Vikings running back the fourth-highest paid running back in annual salary. One hour earlier, former 49ers running back Carlos Hyde signed with the Cleveland Browns for a three-year deal worth up to $15 million.
Many questioned why McKinnon, who has never eclipsed 600 rushing yards or 1,000 all-purpose yards in a season throughout his four-year career, was given similar money as the game’s best. As Minnesota’s third-down back, he barely exceeded 200 touches in each of previous two seasons. He has never rushed more than 159 times in a season.
That may be more a product of circumstance than ability.
McKinnon was stuck amid a revolving cycle in Minnesota, where Adrian Peterson, Latavius Murray, and Dalvin Cook were the featured runners on base downs. McKinnon starred in his limited role. Pro Football Focus gave the Georgia Southern product its eighth-highest grade last year amongst all running backs. He also scored as PFF’s ninth-best pass protector out of all running backs. He caught 51 of 68 targets in 2017. And he’s durable — McKinnon has missed only one game in the past three seasons.
The 26-year-old now gets to put all those skills to the test in an expanded role. Shanahan said McKinnon was the best running back in a free agent crop that included Dion Lewis, C.J. Anderson, and Isaiah Crowell. The 49ers paid top dollar to secure a playmaker who will thrive in Shanahan’s outside zone-based rushing offense.
“It’s big for me,” McKinnon said at his introductory press conference. “It was what I was hoping to have, hoping and looking for. Staying in Minnesota and being in that third-down back role all the time, I was really looking for an opportunity.”
McKinnon is similar, in both stature and playing style, to Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman, who enjoyed the most productive seasons of his career under Shanahan. In his first year as Falcons offensive coordinator in 2015, Freeman amassed 1,634 all-purpose yards and 16 touchdowns. He followed with 1,541 total yards and 13 seasons a year later, despite Tevin Coleman’s integration in the rotation. That 2016 Falcons offense was the highest-scoring offense in the league. Shanahan is a passing game guru, but he has helped several running backs achieve career-best seasons. Alfred Morris compiled 1,613 yards in his rookie season (2012) with the Redskins to lead the league.
Last season, Hyde, hardly known for his pass-catching ability, caught a career-high 59 passes for 350 yards in Shanahan’s first year as 49ers head coach. McKinnon caught eight fewer passes for 101 more yards last season in Minnesota.
The McKinnon addition figures to bolster the passing game. His blazing speed was on full display throughout mini-camp. On one play, he ran a Texas route and dusted Reuben Foster before connecting with Jimmy Garoppolo for a big gain. He has many receiver qualities, from speed, precise route-running, and sticky hands.
San Francisco’s 104 rush yards per game ranked 21st in the NFL. In Shanahan’s first season with the Falcons, they finished 19th in the league with 100.7 rush yards per game. But they improved to 120.5 yards per game in Shanahan’s second year, which is typically when his offenses take off.
Expect Shanahan to find creative ways to maximize McKinnon, one of the new faces of this offense expected to assume a major role in 2018.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Bobby Turner, running backs coach
The man tasked with helping McKinnon see his potential has already done that with some of the game’s greats. Running backs coach Bobby Turner enters his second season coaching running backs with the 49ers, 23rd with the NFL, and 47th overall.
His NFL coaching career started alongside Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998. Turner worked with Pro Football Hall of Fame running back and 1998 NFL MVP Terrell Davis. All seven years of Davis’ career, which included 7,607 yards and 60 touchdowns, were spent with Turner. The Broncos finished top-five in rushing yards in 10 of Turner’s 15 seasons with Denver. Eleven different running backs eclipsed 1,000 single-season yards during his 15-year tenure with the Broncos.
Before the 2010 season, Turner joined Kyle Shanahan on the Redskins staff. He would help Ryan Torain, Roy Helu, and Morris achieve career-best seasons. Morris’ 1,613 yards in 2012 are the third-most for any rookie in a single season. Turner followed Shanahan to Atlanta, where Freeman and Coleman formed arguably the most dynamic running back duo in the league in 2016.
Prior to the 2017 season, after Shanahan was hired as the 49ers head coach, he made Turner the highest-paid running backs coach in the NFL. And if Turner and Shanahan’s past history in maximizing running backs are any indication, the 49ers backfield figures to improve in year No. 2 of the new regime.
This story is part of a two-week training camp countdown highlighting 49ers coaches and ranking their most important players from No. 14 to No. 1. Check out the rankings below.