How a text message set up the 49ers' new backfield
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The text message that popped up on Jerick McKinnon‘s phone came from a number he didn’t know. The introduction was fairly formal given the subject matter.
“In free agency, I got ahold of his number and I was letting him know we had some cool things going on over here and I thought he was going to fit in great,” said Juszczyk, who signed with San Francisco in 2017 after three seasons in Baltimore. “I definitely expressed to him like, ‘Dude, if you want your skill set to be used to its full potential, this is where you need to be.’”
Players recruiting one another in free agency is nothing new, but normally those players have at least met.
Before free agency even began, Juszczyk had a strong feeling that Carlos Hyde, the team’s feature back in 2017, would not be returning. Juszczyk took it upon himself to study McKinnon’s game and came to the conclusion that McKinnon would be a great fit for the 49ers and coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
Of course, the 49ers weren’t alone in their pursuit of McKinnon — the New York Jets were also in hot pursuit of the former Minnesota Viking — but their belief in McKinnon wasn’t limited to lip service. They backed it up with a whopping four-year, $30 million contract, a $7.5 million annual average value that ranked fourth among all running backs at the time of signing.
McKinnon’s contract raised plenty of eyebrows around the league considering he’d never had more than 159 carries or 570 rushing yards in a season and was coming off a campaign in which he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.
None of that mattered much to the 49ers, who saw in McKinnon a player who could maximize his potential in Shanahan’s offense.
“You have to be a good running back to truly get the effects of being good in the pass game because if you’re only good in the pass game, then they can just treat you as a receiver and it’s different,” Shanahan said. “So it starts with being a running back, and we really like him as a running back. We studied every run he had in Minnesota. I think he fits in the type of runs we do very well. … Then the pass game is the huge bonus.”
When Juszczyk reached out, he struck up an immediate friendship with McKinnon.
And as it turned out, Juszczyk was already on the same page as Shanahan and Niners general manager John Lynch. The 49ers’ brain trust had seen the same qualities as Juszczyk and had identified McKinnon as one of their primary free-agent targets. With Shanahan and Lynch pitching the chance for McKinnon to become a focal point of the offense for the first time after four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and Juszczyk answering all of his questions, McKinnon didn’t take long to warm to the idea of playing for the Niners.
Now, more than two weeks into training camp, McKinnon’s projected role has gained a bit more clarity. In practice, McKinnon has proved a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties in the passing game.
“Jerick is a unique talent,” quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. “He can do things out of the backfield. You can line him up in the slot. He can do so many different things that it’s hard for a defense. What do you put on him? A linebacker, a safety, a corner? It’s a pick your poison type of thing.”
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Which is why there’s growing belief that McKinnon’s usage will be similar to what Shanahan did in Atlanta with running back Devonta Freeman. In two seasons with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, Freeman had 160 targets (third most among NFL running backs) to go with 127 receptions (second), while still averaging 1,068 rushing yards per season.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, McKinnon was reunited with Niners running back Matt Breida. The pair played together at Georgia Southern where McKinnon was once an option quarterback operating with Breida as one of his running backs.
For the Niners, it’s not difficult to envision McKinnon playing the role of Freeman to Breida’s Tevin Coleman with Breida handling many of the between-the-tackles duties and McKinnon specializing in pass catching and running outside.
Suffice to say, a running back capable of doing damage in the passing game is a key component of Shanahan’s offense. In 2017, Hyde was targeted 85 times (fifth among running backs), and his 59 receptions tied for sixth. Hyde’s 69.4 percent reception rate ranked just 31st, as he struggled with drops. What’s more, Hyde’s inability to make tacklers miss led to an average of just 5.5 yards per catch after the reception (28th).
Enter McKinnon, with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and the route-running ability to line up just about anywhere Shanahan can dream up. Last season, McKinnon finished with 51 receptions on 68 targets, and his 9.06 yards after catch per reception ranked fourth among all running backs.
That’s not to say McKinnon’s role will be limited to catching passes. He already is a far more natural fit than Hyde as a runner on the outside zone plays that are a staple of Shanahan’s offense. And much of what Shanahan wants to do offensively is based on the idea that he can call anything in his game plan with the same personnel on the field.
The combination of McKinnon and Juszczyk undoubtedly opens up many of those possibilities. To ensure he’s ready for the bigger role he’s always wanted, McKinnon made sure to attend offseason workouts with Garoppolo and to learn the ins and outs of Shanahan’s complex offense.
By his own admission, McKinnon was “really lost” trying to learn the scheme, but he says he’s figuring things out. All that’s left now is for McKinnon to take advantage of the opportunity he’s long coveted and prove that the Niners and Juszczyk’s belief in him were correct.
“A lot of guys, when they get contracts, that’s when they get content,” McKinnon said. “For me, it’s just about staying the same, to continue to work. It being my first year here, just showing my teammates how I work, what I bring to the table, and pushing everyone else around me.”