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Assessing the 49ers’ four options for Jerick McKinnon after another setback

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

SANTA CLARA – One practice. One practice on the first day of September last year fundamentally changed Jerick McKinnon’s career and his outlook with the 49ers. Considered the team’s likely starting back last season before the sustaining the torn ACL, now the wonder is if McKinnon will ever play a game for the team.

He suffered a “flare up” in his knee before training camp began, seeing him placed on the physically unable to perform list. Then, the team removed him, questionably (albeit more questionable in hindsight than it was at the time) from PUP so he could practice on August 6. Following that practice, he dealt with a significant amount of soreness, according to head coach Kyle Shanahan, and took a plasma-rich platelet injection in his knee, sidelining him completely for a pair of weeks before he could begin working back.

Then, Tuesday happened. McKinnon, wearing a knee brace – something he did not wear in his return to practice on August 6 – returned to practice. Nothing eventful occurred in the abbreviated portion open to reporters, but according to general manager John Lynch, who spoke on KNBR on Wednesday, the practice did not go well, and McKinnon suffered another setback.

“It’s a real bummer because you keep getting to the final step and the final step is actually playing NFL football, and particularly at his position, where you have to make hard cuts, you have to put your foot in the ground, and we did it a month ago and he kind of regressed and I would say yesterday we had a similar situation,” Lynch said. “So we’re trying to get to what’s the root cause of the problem that he’s having. And just because he’s working through it, I’m going to leave it at that, but yesterday was not encouraging from that standpoint for Jet. What that means, we’re not sure yet, but we’re working hard to find that out.”

Lynch said he’s not yet sure what McKinnon’s injury means, but there are only four options (or two depending on your perspective) for him. Here’s what they are, listed in order of least likely to most likely.

Makes and is held on the final 53-man roster

This isn’t going to happen. McKinnon’s not been able to demonstrate he’s healthy enough to get through a single practice and the 49ers are not going to waste a roster spot on a player who will be unavailable for an undetermined period of time when they have at least three capable running backs already on the roster (Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and even Jeff Wilson Jr. as a decent option to sneak on practice squad). Putting him on the 53-man roster and leaving him there would be a reckless waste of a roster spot.

Releasing him

This is only slightly more likely due to the fact that wasting a roster spot would make less sense than cutting him outright. This also likely won’t happen, considering that McKinnon’s money this season became guaranteed April 1. The 49ers have already paid him, in effect, and there’s no reason to outright release him when there are much more logical options. It is worth noting, however, that the team has outs in his contract in terms of limiting its burden.

McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million deal in 2018, and as mentioned, his $3.7 million salary became fully guaranteed on April 1, according to Over the Cap. He has a fourth-year option, and will have $2.6 million of his 2020 salary become guaranteed next April 1, but if cut before then, he’d have just $4 million (split over the next two years) remaining on his deal.

Injured reserve-return designation

Before this latest setback, this seemed like the most likely course of action for the 49ers. McKinnon would make the final 53-man roster, then, likely 24 hours later, be put on injured reserve-return designation, which would allow him to return in Week 9. Players have to make the final roster to be placed on IR-return, which is the major caveat here.

If McKinnon had gone through Tuesday’s practice and the ensuing practices unscathed, this option would be much more likely. It would effectively give the 49ers a mid-season insurance policy that if one of their backs were injured, they’d have McKinnon waiting in the wings by Week 9.

This option can’t be ruled out entirely, but the rampant setbacks makes it a question whether McKinnon could even get up to game speed by Week 9, and there would have to be an initial roster casualty (someone like Azeez Al-Shaair or Kevin Givens, perhaps) for at least a day. Those bubble guys are almost certainly more valuable than McKinnon potentially coming back in Week 9.

Injured reserve

This feels like the most likely course of action. McKinnon can be put on injured reserve now, meaning the 53-man roster won’t have to rely on a placeholder and a practice squad sneak-and-sign strategy. With how solid Jeff Wilson Jr. has looked in the preseason, coupled with his power style (he’s listed at 6’0″, 194 pounds compared to Tevin Coleman’s 6’1″, 210 pounds, but plays much bigger) as a fourth option, the 49ers really don’t need McKinnon.

They could use his roster spot on someone like Wilson or – as mentioned – an extra defensive player, either of which is a more palatable option than McKinnon at the moment. Wilson is a likely practice squad candidate, and as Matt Barrows of The Athletic explored, it seems unlikely he’d be snapped up off waivers. If he is, the 49ers would likely have Austin Walter, the diminutive, undrafted back from Rice, who’s also had a nice preseason, as a fourth option.

There is, of course, the theoretical possibility for a trade after this season, but the idea that another team would want to offer anything for McKinnon coming off two lost seasons and due at least $4.6 million guaranteed after April 1 (plus a $250,000 game bonus, split for each game), with the potential to become $8.5 million, seems far-fetched.


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