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Jerick McKinnon’s current coach and former coach think he can be a lead back

Kyle Shanahan and Mike Zimmer offered some thoughts on what Jerick McKinnon can bring to the table.

The San Francisco 49ers went their separate way from running back Carlos Hyde, and replaced him in free agency with Jerick McKinnon. Although McKinnon was never the Vikings’ consistent lead back, the 49ers are paying him $11.7 million in guaranteed money for 2018. His deal provides the team outs, but they are paying him like a lead back.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer both commented on McKinnon’s ability to be a lead back. Zimmer told ESPN’s Courtney Cronin McKinnon is worth the money. Zimmer said, “He hit the hole much better last year, accelerated out, good in pass protection even though he’s a smaller guy. Great guy. We’re going miss him.”

Shanahan was initially asked about McKinnon’s size. He is listed at 5’9, 205 pounds, which makes him a little more light than teams might like for their lead guy. Shanahan thinks that is overblown primarily because of the physicality of the NFL.

“I feel like if you’re not at 230 pounds, people say you can’t handle it for the whole year. I personally think guys who are 230 pounds have a hard time handling it for the whole year. It’s just hard to do that for 16 games in the NFL, no matter who you are. So I really don’t wish that on anybody, to tell you the truth. I’d want to balance him out, and whomever we had I’d want to do that. But you’re gonna have a lead guy, one guy who’s going to get in more than the other people, and that’s what Jerick is for us.”

There are some similarities among the 49ers running backs, with Joe Williams even compared to Jerick McKinnon in his pre-draft scouting report. It would be great to have the bulldozing back, and the scat back, and a host of other options, but Shanahan thinks you just have to go with the best running backs, even if there is some skill overlap.

“I would love to make it all perfect — you’ve got a small, quick one, you’ve got a huge bruiser, you’ve got every single thing possible, but it doesn’t always work out that way. You want to get the best running backs available. And whoever’s available, you try to go for the best one. You don’t go, ‘I think that guy’s the best one, but he looks too much like a guy we have, let me get a different guy.’ It’s just how it comes out. I think our guys are somewhat similar, they do have different attributes, and we’ll continue to look in the draft, and we’ll always continue to try to add running backs.

“But when it comes to if you need a big bruiser for the goal line and stuff, I mean no one’s just running over people unblocked either. You need to find open holes, you need to be a good running back, you need to block well. But yea you want everything, but you’ve gotta go with what’s available, too.”

Matt Breida and Joe Williams will compete for opportunities behind McKinnon, and I suspect we’ll see plenty of one or both of them. We might even see another back added. Shanahan talked about the importance of always finding more running back talent. The 49ers do not have huge commitments to Breida and Williams, and if they think they can find a better option in this year’s draft, they’ll do it. But McKinnon will be getting all sorts of opportunities this year.