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Free Agency Roundtable: Is Jerick McKinnon Worth The Hype?

Various staff members share their views on Jerick McKinnon's fantasy prospects with the San Francsico 49ers.

The 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year deal worth $36.9 million, making him the fourth-highest paid running back in the NFL based on average annual salary. Kyle Shanahan’s history of maximizing running back fantasy scoring as a play caller is well documented and subsequent reports suggest McKinnon is expected to play the “Devonta Freeman role” for San Francisco this season.

McKinnon’s oft-inflated fantasy stock has never been higher, but is the hype finally warranted?

Jason Wood: I’ve already seen other ‘pundits’ making fun of the Jerick McKinnon excitement and suggesting he’s going to be one of the most overhyped players this year. I sincerely hope they maintain that stance. It shows a stunning lack of awareness about not only McKinnon, but his new situation, his coach, and most importantly the baseline we now use for running back relevance.

Phil mentioned the comparison to Devonta Freeman, but Coach Shanahan also admitted to losing himself in watching McKinnon tape for hours. The contract and the commentary are a clear indication the 49ers are prepared to make McKinnon the centerpiece of the new offense. If you want to take the position he’s not up to the task, so be it. Yet, we’ve seen time and again that scheme and opportunity are the two key factors in determining running back value. McKinnon now has both.

Will Grant: I've never been completely sold on McKinnon as a fantasy option, but as Jason points out, the new scheme opens up a world of opportunity for him in San Francisco. Carlos Hyde averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last season and still managed nearly 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns. McKinnon is smaller, faster and has about 140 fewer touches than Hyde is his career -- his arrow is clearly pointing up.

Stephen Holloway: McKinnon's contract provides him a nice payday and an excellent opportunity. San Francisco considered their options and allowed Carlos Hyde to leave in free agency. Hyde had managed only 50 receptions in his first three seasons with the team, yet he caught 59 in his only year with Coach Kyle Shanahan. McKinnon ran for just 4.0 yards per carry in his first four seasons, but his strength was as a receiver catching 142 passes. He may share the backfield in San Francisco, particularly if they draft a running back from the solid 2018 class, but McKinnon could set a career high in receptions in a passing scheme perfectly suited to his skillset.

Daniel Simpkins: The hype is justified in this situation. We know the Shanahan offensive system has certain roles with track records of fantasy success. Quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends, in particular, thrive in this system. McKinnon has shown when pressed into spot duty in Minnesota he’s capable of being at least the lead in a committee. Matt Breida and Joe Williams can also be mixed in to spell McKinnon and keep his touch load reasonable. I don’t see the 49ers adding a back early in the draft because wide receiver, corner, guard, and edge rusher are now bigger needs.

Alessandro Miglio: The 49ers had $100 million in cap space before free agency began, and they still have $46 million left after their generous spending. While McKinnon may not be worth that $36.9 million contract in a vacuum, San Francisco used their strong position to bring in what seems to be their favorite free-agent running back. There is no fault in overpaying when you have all that money.

Andy Hicks: When you consider the details of the contract, it’s not as bad an overpay as the narrative implies. McKinnon has a significant $12 million cap hit in year one, but after that, it’s basically a year-by-year contract. If he doesn't live up to expectations in 2018, the 49ers can move on with only $1.5 million in dead cap space. His second year with the team isn't exorbitant if he plays well, with a cap hit of $4.5 million. And if McKinnon is cut after 2019, the cap hit drops to just $1 million. His salary jumps to over $7 million in 2020, but if he’s still on the team by then, it will mean he’ll have earned his salary.

Alessandro Miglio: Regardless of the contract particulars, I'm excited to see how Shanahan uses him. McKinnon had not exactly been put in a position to succeed in Minnesota throughout his career. Either he was a backup, or he was in a platoon behind an awful offensive line. We know what Shanahan can do with his running backs, and McKinnon has the skills to replicate the fantasy production we saw from Devonta Freeman in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Freeman was sixth in PPR scoring that year after catching 54 passes. McKinnon caught 51 last season.

Andy Hicks: I understand the excitement, but the final piece of the 49ers running back rotation may not be on the roster yet. Matt Breida and Joe Williams (last year’s fourth-round pick) are the current competition, but if the 49ers use one of their first four picks on a running back, then we need to significantly dial back expectations for McKinnon.

Dan Hindery: Totally agree, Andy. With picks 59, 70 and 74 overall in the draft, the 49ers could easily take advantage of the running back depth in this class and choose a talented back to share the load with McKinnon.

BJ Vanderwoude: I’m not too worried about McKinnon if the 49ers add another rookie to the mix. McKinnon’s contract locks in a strong enough workload, even if he doesn’t see 20+ touches per game. It’s his versatility in the passing game that matters in San Francisco. Stephen mentioned Carlos Hyde, whose 59 catches last year is McKinnon's floor as a pass catcher this year. The difference is McKinnon has the upside to blow through that number and finish as one of the top receivers among running backs.

Ultimately, McKinnon's value will come down to whether he can be effective running the ball 10-12 times per game. Shanahan has a history of maximizing talent at the running back position, putting McKinnon in a great position as the lead back for the 49ers.

Assuming the 49ers don’t add too much in the way of competition through the draft, how would you value McKinnon headed into next season?

Phil Alexander: I had zero issue drafting Carlos Hyde as my PPR RB1 in drafts where I started receiver-heavy last season due primarily to his association with Shanahan, and I feel exactly the same about McKinnon headed into this season.

BJ and Stephen mentioned Hyde's remarkable emergence as a pass-catcher under Shanahan. As a more polished receiver who excels in spaces, there is a realistic chance McKinnon finishes with 75 receptions or more.

It should also be noted all but five of Hyde's games last year came with either Brian Hoyer or C.J. Beathard behind center. Jimmy Garoppolo was the rising tide that lifted all boats when he took over in Week 13. Hyde scored a combined four rushing touchdowns in Garoppolo's five starts, which was the same total he rushed for in the season's previous 11 games. Given the fact San Francisco averaged nearly 29 points per game with Garoppolo, we can't discount McKinnon's mid-RB1 upside as the lead back in what may end up one of the league's better offenses.

Sigmund Bloom: Phil has the right idea. If Hyde -- a surprisingly good pass catcher and route runner under Shanahan -- can generate so much value in a 49ers offense that didn't benefit from Jimmy Garoppolo for more than half the season, then Shanahan's hand-picked back in free agency can generate even more value as a receiver.

McKinnon could approach low RB1 value and at least deliver what Christian McCaffrey did last year in terms of weekly and season-long floor/ceiling. In general, there is a lot of newfound value in the 49ers offense to harvest, and players like Pierre Garcon and George Kittle are also undervalued, that is unless Jimmy Garoppolo is grossly overvalued, which is possible.

Jason Wood: I’m compiling my initial set of projections for the season and see no reason McKinnon won’t be at least a mid-level RB2.

Will Grant: He's easily a high RB2 choice with potential for RB1 numbers in PPR leagues.

Stephen Holloway: Hyde finished last season as the RB8 in PPR scoring last year. McKinnon -- who got more guaranteed money than Hyde in free agency -- should be able to finish in the same tier this season.

Daniel Simpkins: In redraft formats, I would now consider McKinnon in the late second round. In dynasty, his value has jumped to somewhere close to a late first round rookie pick.

Alessandro Miglio: He may not be a prototypical back, but McKinnon will land in the top-10 fantasy scorers among his peers next season if he can stay healthy.

Andy Hicks: As it stands right now, he looks like a solid RB2 with upside. To echo Jason, scheme and opportunity are everything. The 49ers plan to feature McKinnon as a receiver, which gives him an RB2 floor. His ceiling, however, will be predicated on his improvement as a rusher. With the Vikings, McKinnon was a complementary back who averaged only 3.5 yards per carry over the last two seasons. I’m not convinced he improves a great deal, but if he can take advantage of an offense that can scheme ahead of the NFL average, he could end up a star.

Dan Hindery: Kyle Shanahan’s offense with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm could quickly emerge as one of the best in the league and McKinnon is well positioned to be the top back. He should be especially valuable in PPR leagues due to the realistic possibility he catches 65+ passes. If San Francisco doesn’t add a running back in the early rounds, McKinnon should be drafted as a top-10 running back in 2018 and is set up for a monster fantasy season.

From a dynasty perspective, Mckinnon’s value is tough to peg with any confidence due to the possibility the 49ers draft a talented running back. As such, he is a “sell high” candidate over the next month if another owner is convinced San Francisco is done adding to their backfield and values McKinnon as if he is locked into a heavy workload.

BJ Vanderwoude: McKinnon is a tough player to peg this season, as some will view him as a breakout candidate and others will see him as a value trap. I’m in agreement that he’ll have great value under Shanahan’s tutelage, and the 49ers offense is on the rise with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm.

Phil mentioned McKinnon in the "Devonta Freeman role”. Freeman finished the last two seasons ranked as the RB6 and RB12, respectively, despite averaging only 16.5 total touches per game. If you can get McKinnon as your RB2 you've done very well, but I would not hesitate to grab him as my RB1 if I drafted wide receivers early.