Love is all about timing. Often times, love comes down finding the right person for you based on that person’s fit into the current stage of your life. The same is true for an NFL head coach looking for his franchise running back.
Not all love-at-first-sight relationships can be happily-ever-after stories like Jimmy Johnson trading up in the draft to select Emmitt Smith, ultimately making the Cowboys the most dominant team in the league in the 1990s. Sometimes you feel unappreciated by your partner and their lack of commitment, which I imagine is how Le’Veon Bell feels about Mike Tomlin and the Steelers using their franchise tag on him yet again instead of committing to a multi-year deal with guaranteed money. Sometimes a relationship doesn’t work out, so you decide to get back together with your ex like LeGarrette Blount did when he was with the Patriots for two years before signing with the Steelers in 2014. When Pittsburgh released him mid-season, he reunited with Bill Belichick in New England and won Super Bowl XLIX with his former team.
We often search for that perfect person who checks all the boxes and fits all the criteria we’re looking for, but even when we find such a person, a relationship can look perfect on paper but still fail. But every now and again, a relationship that looks perfect on paper can become something truly magical. And there just might be some magic brewing in San Francisco.
To Kyle Shanahan, Jerick McKinnon is perfect.
The 49ers recently signed McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract with almost $16 million guaranteed, making him the third highest-paid running back in the league behind Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy. Given how much Shanahan loves McKinnon, you should love him too in fantasy football. Of course, many disagree with this notion and feel that McKinnon is overrated and overvalued in dynasty leagues right now. His detractors often argue that one of McKinnon’s biggest flaws is that while a superb athlete, he isn’t a very efficient pure runner. While McKinnon’s yards per carry (YPC) in recent years may not seem encouraging at a glance (3.4 YPC in 2016 and 3.8 YPC in 2017), these figures are misleading. I was going to post some examples to highlight McKinnon’s running abilities, but Rich Madrid has already posted a great deal of video clips demonstrating McKinnon’s vision and agility in this Twitter thread.
If you prefer more of a numbers approach to fantasy instead of watching film, then how about this statistic per Pro Football Focus:
“When the 2014 and 2015 Minnesota offenses were 14th and 13th, respectively, in run-blocking grades, McKinnon averaged 4.8 and 5.1 yards per carry. When they were 23rd and 28th in 2016 and 2017, respectively, McKinnon’s efficiency fell to 3.4 and 3.8 yards per carry.”
Like most running backs, McKinnon is somewhat dependent on the quality of his offensive line, but thus far he has run very well relative to the performance of the offensive line units behind which he has worked.
So what about in San Francisco? There’s some good news there as well. In addition to being paired with Shanahan’s innovative offensive mind, McKinnon will potentially be working behind a better run-blocking unit than he had in Minnesota. Per Football Outsiders, in 2017 the 49ers were 11th in adjusted line yards at 4.16, and the Vikings were 19th in adjusted line yards at 3.96. Of course, there will be changes and some concerns in 2018. Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley will 34 years old, center Daniel Kilgore was traded to Miami, and right guard Brandon Fusco signed with Atlanta in free agency, but expect 49ers general manager John Lynch to address these losses in free agency and/or the Draft.
Now that we’ve established that the worry over McKinnon being a poor runner is quite overblown, let’s discuss a clear strength: his pass-catching skills and elusiveness in space. The large contract he was given would indicate that the 49ers plan to utilize McKinnon heavily. But even if he were to cede a lot of the early-down work to another running back, McKinnon can still be a PPR monster.
In 2017, after Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Week 4 against Detroit, McKinnon and Latavius Murray became the primary backs in Minnesota. From Week 5 to the end of the regular season, Murray received 59.1% of the team’s rushing attempts (including the majority of red zone carries), and McKinnon only 40.9% of the team’s rushing attempts. However, McKinnon was the primary pass-catching back, receiving 76.8% of the receptions to running backs. During this twelve-week stretch, McKinnon totaled 167.5 points in PPR, an average of 14.0 points per game (PPG).
At this pace, McKinnon would’ve total 223.3 fantasy points in PPR over a full 16 games, which would’ve made him the RB11 last season. Ironically enough, this would’ve placed his final points total just behind Christian McCaffrey and just in front of Duke Johnson, two other running backs who received less than 50% of their team’s rushing attempts but finished very highly in PPR formats due to their strong involvement in the passing game. Oh, and by the way, the 49ers defense will be nowhere near as dominant as the Vikings defense was in 2017, which in theory would lead to playing from behind in more games and therefore potentially more targets and receptions for McKinnon.
So McKinnon is, in fact, a good runner and should at minimum be the primary pass-catching back in San Francisco. But it’s possible that the 49ers make him a workhorse back, as his contract might suggest. And while it would be wise to take coaches’ comments in the offseason with a grain of salt, Shanahan was recently quoted saying this:
“We brought him [McKinnon] here to be our starting back. Feature back, starting back, obviously, that’s what we think of him and that’s why we got him here, but you can use backs in a lot of different ways. There’s lots of things you can do with them and when you have a guy like Jerick, when he’s on the field, he’s not on the field just to [catch] passes. He’s not on the field just to run the ball. He can do both, and when you can do both, it puts defenses a lot more in a bind and gives us a lot more options.”
So let’s project what McKinnon’s numbers might look like in a feature role. The numbers are startling if we project him to receive even a slight majority of all touches out of the backfield. If McKinnon receives just 60% of the team’s total carries and 60% of all receptions to the halfback position, a conservative projection using his baseline career average of 4.0 YPC and 6.9 yards per reception (YPR) would yield 207 carries for 828 yards and nine rushing touchdowns as well as 50 catches for 342 yards and two receiving touchdowns. By the way, if you don’t trust my projections, they are pretty in line with Mike Clay’s early projections, and he’s much smarter than me. In PPR, these figures total 227.0 points, which would’ve made McKinnon the RB9 in 2017, right behind where Carlos Hyde finished last year. Oh, and Clay’s McKinnon projections are actually higher than mine at 230.2 projected PPR points.
As for the haters and pessimists who cry, “but what if the 49ers draft another running back? Sell high on McKinnon before that happens!” It’s true. While Shanahan may be in a relationship with McKinnon, it’s fair to define it an open relationship. After all, Shanahan is already also involved with Matt Breida, Joe Williams, and Jeremy McNichols, and he will have plenty of rookie running backs throwing themselves at him as well during the pre-Draft process. But while Shanahan may develop a crush on a rookie, there are two important caveats to remember. First, it’s entirely possible that San Francisco does not draft a rookie running back in April. The team has plenty of roster needs, and they could be content heading into the season with McKinnon and company. Second, even if they do draft a rookie back, it’s still likely McKinnon will be atop the depth chart going into 2018 as the most experienced and highest-paid running back on the roster.
But just to soothe the worrywarts, let’s discuss the absolute worst-case scenario. What if Shanahan demotes McKinnon to just his side piece and relegates him to pass-catching work, instead opting to give the lead back duties to another? Let’s project McKinnon in the “Tevin Coleman” role with just 40% of the team’s total carries and 40% of all receptions to the halfback position. These projections would still give him 138 carries for 552 yards and six rushing touchdowns along with 33 catches for 228 yards and two receiving touchdowns. These figures would’ve made McKinnon the RB18 in 2017 with a total 176.0 points in PPR, just two points fewer than he had last year.
Whew, that’s a lot of words and numbers, but here’s the story in a nutshell. Barring injury, here’s what to expect for McKinnon in 2018. Even if the 49ers relegate him to an ancillary role as the pass-catching back, his absolute floor is an RB2 in PPR. If they do indeed use McKinnon as the feature back, his floor is a low-end RB1 in PPR. If he’s the workhorse and his rushing and/or receiving efficiency increases in Shanahan’s offense from his career averages, then his ceiling could easily be that of an elite top-5 fantasy running back. All of this is great news, but the best part is how cheap it is right now to acquire McKinnon in dynasty leagues.
A quick Twitter poll suggests that at the time of this writing, almost half of the poll’s 380 respondents value him as a late first round rookie pick. Even more shocking, nearly a quarter of respondents wouldn’t even pay a first round pick for him! McKinnon is a glaring value, not a sell-high player as many in the dynasty community view him. How many first round rookie picks bust? How many first round rookie picks have the kind of high floor and immense ceiling that McKinnon possesses in San Francisco? I’m not saying anything ridiculous here like McKinnon is a better fantasy back than Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt, but there’s a decent chance that he could come close to their production or perhaps even outscore them at a much lower cost of acquisition.
I will happily acquire McKinnon anywhere I can in dynasty leagues if he costs the 1.05 or less. Just because we’ve never seen McKinnon succeed in a lead role doesn’t mean that he won’t. Just because Ben Tate crashed and burned when he finally got his shot at a starting role doesn’t mean that McKinnon will do the same. Just because that new girl you’re dating is obsessed with horses like your ex was doesn’t mean she’s also a psychopath and a terrible person. Of course, there are no sure things in life or fantasy football. It’s possible that McKinnon doesn’t end up as the feature back. It’s possible that even if he does, his body doesn’t hold up to the workload. It’s even possible that McKinnon becomes the workhorse back in San Francisco, but he’s simply not good, even in a Shanahan-led offense.
Sometimes you have to take a chance on someone. Message that girl you met at the housewarming party last night. Tell your office crush how you feel at the Christmas party. Fly across the country to see the bridesmaid you shared a moment with at that wedding. Buy Jerick McKinnon in dynasty.