Jerick McKinnon to the 4th!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one already: Jerick McKinnon is a talented running back about to get his big break. After three years as a specialist with the Vikings, McKinnon has landed with the suddenly resurgent San Francisco 49ers this offseason. Together with similarly liberated QB Jimmy Garropolo, under the guidance of offensive genius Kyle Shanahan, and suddenly thrust into a backfield with less competition, there is reason to hope on a big improvement.  Well, I’m not buying it.

Sam Bradford

source: Wikimedia commons

Many of the major fantasy sites are all in. In PPR redraft (per Yahoo! ranks), McKinnon was RB22 in 2017 but is projected as RB13 this year, between LeSean McCoy and Christian McCaffrey. Yahoo has him ranked #27 overall. ESPN rates him as RB14. The FantasyPros consensus ranks have him as #22 overall and RB14.

Let’s take a look some evidence, shall we?

First, McKinnon wasn’t entirely blocked his whole Vikings career.  He had several opportunities to seize a role as the lead back, at least for stretches.  As a rookie, starter Adrian Peterson went out in week one and by week four McKinnon had crept past Matt Asiata on the depth chart. He held the position until hurting his back with five games to go in the season. In his second year, Peterson’s return relegated McKinnon to be a change-of-pace afterthought – 444 yards and 3 touchdowns across 16 games. In 2016, though, Peterson played only three games due to yet another injury and McKinnon became the “lead” back, putting up 794 yards from scrimmage in 15 games (good only for fourth on the offense in yards from scrimmage). In 2017, Delvin Cook and Latavius Murray looked to finally render McKinnon an afterthought. Cook went down after a phenomenal four starts. Murray got most of the rest of the starts, but McKinnon slightly outproduced him 991 total yards to 945.  That’s right, for two-thirds of his career McKinnon has had nothing more than Matt Asiata or Latavius Murray standing between him and the starting lineup and didn’t  break out.

Untitled

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

One question worth asking is whether guys who get a role but can’t crack a starting lineup in their first few years break out later. Above is a list (from the amazing play index of Pro-football-reference.com) that shows RBs since 1995 that 1) started 16 games or less in the first 4 years of their careers but 2) had at least 550 offensive touches in their first four years.  It’s arbitrary, yes, but it is pretty much where McKinnon is right now, so work with me. There are 19 players on the list, with McKinnon 7th by touches.  What happened to these guys after year four?

A couple of guys did have at least short runs of fantasy relevance. The fourth year was already the breakout year for Marion Barber and Ahmad Bradshaw and both had a couple of nice years of fantasy relevance (before they changed teams and disappeared.) Ron Dayne changed teams twice in the next three years. Jonathan Stewart, Pierre Thomas and Kevin Faulk kept coming in off the bench and were fringe fantasy players for years (admittedly, Stewart finally and improbably became the starter in years 8-10 of his career.) Most of the others flamed out entirely.

If you were to find one guy on this list to give you hope, it would be Darren Sproles. Sproles would move to New Orleans after his fifth year and basically never stop producing for fantasy owners even while never starting for his NFL team. Jerick McKinnon ain’t no Darren Sproles.

Sproles McKinnon
Career Yards per carry 4.91 4.05
Career Yards per reception 8.75 6.93
%Target + Rush Attempt, 1st Down 41.3% 51.2%
%Target + Rush Attempt, 2nd Down 35.6% 37.7%
%Target + Rush Attempt, 3rd Down 22.4% 10.8%

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

In Jerick McKinnon’s career, he’s produced far less per rush and target than Darren Sproles. While Sproles’s splits back up his reputation as a third down back, McKinnon has had a more ‘traditional’ deployment across three downs. Yes, the Vikings’ offensive line was often leaky as the Metrodome’s roof at the end, but Peterson and Cook showed the ability to succeed with the same line.

roof-collapse

Football Outsiders publishes their DVOA ranks for running backs. This stat tries to compare running back value per play compared to other running backs, with an adjustment for the defenses faced. McKinnon was 40th of 47 RBs with 100 or more attempts, and 31st of 62 RBs with more than 25 receiptions.  I guess you can say he’s better at receiving than running — but these stats don’t suggest a hidden LaDanian Tomlinson.

OK, so what does this all mean? Even with the red flags described above, someone still has to take McKinnon, right? It’s hard to dispute he’ll be given a good number of touches. Maybe Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers see something that really does represent upside. McKinnon isn’t awful.  He’s just not great, either.

As I mentioned, expert projections have McKinnon around #22. In a 12 team snake draft that would make him available in the late second or early third.  Given that the teams at the back end of the second round picked at the top of the first round, a team picking in that area probably already has a star RB like Todd Gurley, David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, or Ezekiel Elliott.  McKinnon shows up on the second round radar in a small cluster with Devonta Freeman, LeSean McCoy, Jordan Howard, and Christian McCaffrey. The next cluster of RBs starts a few spots lower with the likes of Joe Mixon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Jay Ajayi. I would rather target Freeman, Howard, McCoy, or McCaffrey at the end of the second round. If they were all gone, it probably would mean a top WR slipped to that area.  I’d go ahead and take the WR and aim for Kenyan Drake or Joe Mixon in the 3rd round – players who have shown explosiveness if not yet longevity to be low end RB1s.  I see RBs I’d prefer unless and until McKinnon makes it to me for a speculative pick in the 4th round — which he won’t.

In dynasty, McKinnon becomes even less attractive.   Uncontested snaps isn’t quite as big an asset in dynasty – NFL teams not getting enough production from a position will draft, trade for, or sign competition.  Just as the Vikings signed Latavius Murray and drafted Dalvin Cook when they could have handed the reins to McKinnon in 2017, the 49ers might well look at undrafted free agents or a trade if McKinnon can’t produce this year.  As for ADP, several of the rookie RBs (Guice, Chubb, Michel, Penny, Jones, and Royce Freeman) float to the vicinity of McKinnon in the consensus. All these players would be reasonable to value above McKinnon. Non-elite mid-career RBs are death on dynasty.  Few other real assets are likely to lose value more quickly.  Approach your startup drafts accordingly.

I’m not the only guy down on McKinnon.  For bonus points, read these authors for some complementary takes on why you might want to steer clear of San Francisco’s new hotness in 2018.  You’ll thank me later.

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