With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at Kyle Shanahan’s new favorite running back.
Jerick McKinnon Has the Build and Athleticism of a Featured Back
Jerick McKinnon‘s attributes as a runner have been debated for the better part of the last four years following severe injuries to both Adrian Peterson (twice) and Dalvin Cook. The league has hardly been set aflame by McKinnon’s career average of 4.0 yards per carry, but he’s flashed enough three-down ability to make fans wonder what he could do without a player like Matt Asiata or Latavius Murray in the fold.
McKinnon, a former college quarterback, hasn’t always posted production on par with his athletic credentials during his four-year career, but he remains one of the league’s freak athletes:
Devonta Freeman is the only running back weighing less than 210 pounds and standing shorter than 5-foot-10 that has earned at least 20 combined rushing attempts and targets per game in a season since 2014. His offensive coordinator during that season? None other than current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers Paid McKinnon and Didn’t Draft a Running Back
While Shanahan isn’t immune to utilizing committee backfields, he’s routinely produced fantasy stars for the better part of the last 10 years. There have been just 13 instances of a running back racking up 220-plus rushes and 50-plus receptions in a season since 2015 — and Shanahan has been responsible for three of them. He’s consistently helped elevate late-round picks such as Freeman and Alfred Morris, as Shanahan’s featured back has scored at least seven total touchdowns during each of the past six seasons.
Total touchdowns scored by Kyle Shanahan's RB1:
2017: Hyde – 8
2016: Freeman – 13
2015: Freeman – 14
2014: Crowell – 8
2013: Morris – 7
2012: Morris – 13
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) May 29, 2018
With all due respect to similarly undersized SPARQ-plug Matt Breida, there currently isn’t another running back on the 49ers roster who deserves to take snaps away from McKinnon. The front office appeared to indicate as much with McKinnon’s contract: He joins Le’Veon Bell as the only running backs with an eight-figure cap hit for the 2018 season.
It’s tough to put anyone in Bell’s league as a receiver, but McKinnon’s contract indicates he could be leaned on heavily in the passing game. It’s intriguing to picture his open-field ability under the tutelage of Shanahan.
The Jimmy GQ Effect
Shanahan and McKinnon might be a great schematic fit, but the real reason for optimism in San Francisco is Jimmy Garoppolo. All Garoppolo has done during his four years in the NFL is win each of his seven starts while averaging the second-most adjusted yards per pass attempt in NFL history (minimum 250 attempts). Garoppolo’s impact on the previously inept 49ers offense was clear:
- Without Garoppolo starting (11 games): 1-10 , 17 points per game, 322 total yards per game
- With Garoppolo starting (5 games): 5-0, 28.8 points per game, 410 total yards per game
The only issue with Garoppolo under center was Carlos Hyde‘s decreased involvement in the passing game upon Garoppolo taking over last season; after averaging 6.6 targets per game in Weeks 1-12, Hyde saw just 15 total targets during Garoppolo’s five starts. A truly competent quarterback under center won’t spend all game checking down to their running back, but that doesn’t come without a fantasy-friendly trade-off: Hyde scored as many rushing touchdowns in his limited time with Garoppolo as he did in 11 starts of C.J. Beathard and Brian Hoyer; funny how scoring opportunities are more fruitful on a more efficient offense. It’s also possible that Garoppolo didn’t throw to Hyde as much because Hyde was an inefficient receiver. Hyde averaged just 5.9 yards per reception and caught just 66% of his targets in 2017 (McKinnon averaged 8.3 yards per reception and caught 75% of his targets).
A new scheme and new teammates will bring about plenty of questions no matter what, but in McKinnon’s case, most of the answers appear to be pointing in a positive direction. McKinnon’s average draft position as of this writing dubs him as just the RB14 despite the potential for a career-best year in terms of opportunity alongside the best quarterback he’s played with yet.
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Pictured above: Jerick McKinnon
Photo credit: Brad Rempel – USA TODAY Sports