The San Francisco 49ers aggressively pursued former Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon, ultimately handing him a four-year, $30 million deal. The SPARQ freak is a rare athlete, who will now get a chance to shine as the lead back in a Kyle Shanahan zone rushing scheme.
But just how much can McKinnon accomplish in his new role?
When looking for fantasy running backs, the most important thing to look at is opportunity. Many NFL teams no longer have a three-down workhorse in their backfield. Whether that is a successful recipe for a team’s overall rushing success will not matter to your fantasy team.
If Shanahan plans on giving McKinnon upwards of 20 touches per game, he needs to be on everyone’s radar somewhere in the first two rounds. And based on his salary, I don’t see how they won’t feed him relentlessly, trying to maximize their shiny new toy.
McKinnon fared very well last season, finishing as the 17th best running back in ESPN PPR leagues. He accomplished that feat despite splitting carries with Latavius Murray, who got 216 carries of his own. Murray also scored eight times on the season, which took away from McKinnon potential ceiling. With Carlos Hyde now gone, McKinnon should get the bulk of the carries and receptions out of the 49ers backfield.
San Francisco is also expected to field a high-powered offense, led by undefeated Jimmy Garoppolo, who should put the team in scoring position often. Last season, McKinnon was routinely vultured at the goal line by Murray, but he fared well when called upon. He was given just three rushing attempts from inside the opponents’ 5-yard line, and he converted two of those into touchdowns. Hyde was given 18 such touches last year, which could indicate a lofty touchdown expectation for McKinnon in his first season with the team. The second-best RB on San Francisco’s depth chart is Matt Breida, who was only given one goal line touch last year.
In his five starts with the 49ers, Garoppolo threw 19 passes to running backs. While Hyde is widely known for being a poor receiver, McKinnon excels in this role, as it allows him to use his open-field skills to his advantage. Breida was used sparingly in the passing game as well, not helping his cause by doing little with the opportunities he did receive. All of this adds up to McKinnon being a target monster, who could challenge the league leaders at his position for touches.
So, if we can realistically expect these trends to continue, McKinnon would be looking at a comprehensive overhaul from a usage standpoint. He should get a lot more carries, receptions, and goal line touches. While I’m still a little uncomfortable drafting him in the first round, if you can get him on your team in the second round or beyond, do not hesitate to pull the trigger. McKinnon is an RB1 with immense upside, ahead of the the 2018 season.