Believe the Hype on Jerick McKinnon - Footballguys

Diving into Jerick McKinnon's fantasy prospects for 2018.

Jerick McKinnon signed a huge deal with the San Francisco 49ers this offseason, sparking an instant fantasy furor. The former Viking went from sleeper-at-best to PPR stud. Is the hype warranted, or should we temper expectations? Fantasy owners haven’t completely bought into it if ADP is any indication, but that only makes McKinnon a bargain if he lives up to his potential.

Running Back Whisperer

Remember Steve Slaton? For one spectacular rookie season in 2008, the speedster out of West Virginia stormed the league to the tune of 1,659 total yards and 10 touchdowns. He outpaced the likes of Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson in PPR fantasy scoring and contended for offensive rookie of the year honors alongside Matt Forte and Johnson. Fantasy owners flocked to him in the first round the following season, but they got burned — injuries cut his disappointing season short, and he was out of the league two years later.

Do you know who Slaton’s offensive coordinator was in 2008? That would be 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who was cutting his teeth as a Houston assistant at the time. Two years later Shanahan would join his father in Washington, where he would squeeze out respectable season lines from the likes of Ryan Torain and Roy Helu before sixth-round pick Alfred Morris went supernova as a rookie in 2012.

After a year in purgatory with the Browns, Shanahan went to Atlanta and turned Devonta Freeman — who led the league in fantasy scoring in 2015 — and Tevin Coleman into PPR studs. His latest rehabilitation project came just last season, breathing life into Carlos Hyde’s career after preseason rumors about his roster demise swirled. Remember when Joe Williams was going to take over? Hyde wound up eighth in PPR scoring on a rebuilding 49ers squad.

Why the abridged history on Kyle Shanahan and his running backs? Because Jerick McKinnon is next in line.

Of course, you already knew that. McKinnon’s hype train left the station shortly after the 49ers shocked the NFL and signed him to a four-year, $30 million deal this offseason. Who knew a career backup was worth so much money? Shanahan did, and he is going to make the former Viking a star.

Already a Factor

McKinnon was 17th in PPR scoring last season as he split time in the Minnesota backfield. He wound up with 201 touches behind a bad offensive line, and he made the most of his opportunities — among the top 20 fantasy scorers at running back, McKinnon was seventh in points-per-touch.

If past is prologue, we are in for some fireworks in San Francisco. This is particularly true in PPR formats, where McKinnon was already a quality option. He garnered 68 targets last season, catching 51 of them. Shanahan has become a master of maximizing his personnel, and part of that has been finding ways to get his running backs the ball in the passing game. Hyde went from 33 targets in 2016 to 88 last season. Freeman went from 37 as a rookie to 97 the year he led the league in scoring.

Expecting a 200 percent increase in McKinnon’s target count would be ludicrous — not even Antonio Brown gets 210 targets — but it would be reasonable to expect 100-plus for the newly minted 49er if he is healthy most of the year. If he stays near his career catch (74 percent), yard (6.9 YPR), and touchdown (2 percent) rates, 100 targets would put McKinnon at 74 receptions for 512 yards and three touchdowns in 2018. That’s if Shanahan’s offense doesn’t materially improve upon those averages. If we dial back the expectations to, say, 80 targets, the 26-year-old still goes for 59-408-2 this season. That’s roughly LeSean McCoy’s aerial production from 2017.

The Question Marks

McKinnon’s passing game prowess wasn’t really in question, though. He has always been a good receiver out of the backfield; it was just a matter of more playing time. The biggest variable in all this is rushing attempts. McKinnon has averaged 155 carries over the past two years despite weak competition. The Vikings didn’t feel he was good enough to carry the load, which is a legitimate concern for fantasy owners. Nagging questions are going to eat at fantasy owners early in drafts.

Is he going to be a three-down back?

Will his body hold up to all those touches? He wasn’t particularly efficient on the ground in Minnesota, but how much of that was scheme and personnel?

How much does that matter? Carlos Hyde averaged 3.8 YPC last season, but he kept getting the ball. The former 49er got 240 carries in 2017, a great baseline for McKinnon’s expectations.

What about Matt Breida and the aforementioned Williams? Well… what about them? They are getting offseason workout hype much like the latter did a year ago. Every team has backup running backs, and Breida could conceivably be involved as much as Tevin Coleman was with Shanahan in Atlanta. That didn’t prevent Freeman from having two outstanding fantasy seasons, and it won’t block McKinnon from doing the same in San Francisco.

A Bargain Indeed

The most beautiful part of all this is that the hype hasn’t quite consumed fantasy owners. Likely because of the uncertainty about his role as a rusher, McKinnon’s ADP has hovered in the mid-20s overall as an RB2 in PPR drafts for much of the offseason. It will probably stay in that range until the preseason when McKinnon will have an opportunity to kick his hype train into a higher gear. Or he could disappoint and become an even bigger bargain. For now, though, fantasy owners can draft a top-five PPR running back at a heavy discount just because he hasn’t done it before. Barring injury, McKinnon is being drafted at his floor.


David Dodds
Bob Henry
Jason Wood
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What Others Are Saying

Marc Mathyk thinks McKinnon will be a bust as he writes at FantasyPros:

“Simply put, McKinnon is a great compliment back, nothing more. He is a rare example of profound athleticism churning out an average player. There is a good chance he will be a better fantasy option than last year based on more volume in San Francisco.”

CBS Sports’ Dave Richard agrees that Shanahan will turn McKinnon into a fantasy stud:

“Every year there's a running back who changes teams and becomes an intriguing Fantasy option. McKinnon is this year's guy. It's a leap of faith to trust that his numbers will turn out good in Fantasy, but Shanahan's track record and desire to get him involved make McKinnon worth the risk.”