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What will the 49ers do to replace Jerick McKinnon?

Alfred Morris, Matt Breida, and Kyle Juszczyk are the three players to watch, but who emerges, particularly in the passing game?

The San Francisco 49ers arrived at training camp six weeks ago with plenty of questions. We didn’t know what to expect from Jimmy Garoppolo in his first full season as a starter, and the defense, particularly the pass defense, was a big question mark. The preseason did not offer any final answers on those questions, but it did result in a new question. What are the 49ers going to do with Jerick McKinnon out for the year due to a torn ACL?

On Wednesday, head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked how far the team was into their Week 1 game plan for the Minnesota Vikings, and how much the injury changed things. He stated what should be fairly obvious at this point.

“You don’t get anything down on paper and give it to your team, but since the day we signed him we’ve been game planning for Minnesota. So, I’m not going to lie, it changes things pretty drastically. When you go for, that was your first target in free agency, so once you do it, you have a plan on how to use him, especially going into Week 1. So, that definitely changes. We didn’t have him before, so we’ve done a lot of different things without that. We were going to do some different things with him, which we have other guys on the roster who are capable of doing that stuff. But, it’s just how much you want to do it and things like that. That changes formations and everything. We definitely had to go back in and change some things, but definitely still excited about what we’ve got.”

We know that Matt Breida and Alfred Morris will split up some of the workload, but NFL Films and ESPN producer and analyst Greg Cosell thinks Kyle Juszczyk will be the player to watch when the 49ers get into passing situations. He had this to say in a recent KNBR interview:

“Who’s going to be essentially their 11-personnel back? My sense is that if it’s 3rd and 6 and under, you’re gonna see Kyle Juszczyk as the 11-personnel back because he’s such a good receiver. Now, if it’s 3rd and 10 or 11, you might not. But certainly it’s not going to be Alfred Morris, we know that. Breida struggled a bit at times catching the ball — maybe he’s better. They’re gonna have to figure out who that guy is.”

The 49ers have some decisions to make as they prepare for what will likely be a stout Vikings defense. There is the concern about the running back in play being a tell for the offense’s plan. Naturally, Shanahan downplayed that concern.

“I think it does if Breida never runs the ball and Alf never catches the ball, you know? But, we’ll be balanced in both. It’s not like that. It’s very rare you can have a guy on your roster who can’t catch at all or can’t run at all. If you only are in on passes, they can call you a running back but you’re a receiver. So, you’ve got to balance all of that out. We have the running backs who can do that. Guys do certain things better than others, but all three of the guys that will be up I feel confident that all three of them can definitely run and catch.”

Morris had a career-high 17 receptions in 2014, and has 57 total receptions for his six-year career. He will catch some passes from Jimmy Garoppolo, but when he’s on the field, it is a tell at least that the 49ers are not likely to be looking to pass to him.

Breida had 21 receptions for 180 yards as a rookie, but he was not particularly efficient. Drops resulted in him ranking 37th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR and DVOA statistics among 62 running backs who was targeted a minimum of 25 times (he was targeted 36 times). It’s not the end of the world, but it’s an area he needs to improve upon.

Juszczyk was a little more efficient, ranking 28th in DYAR and 27th in DVOA. He had 33 receptions on 42 targets for 315 yards. Juice could very well end up with closer to 50 receptions unless Breida improves in the passing game.

McKinnon was going to be the go-to guy out of the backfield in the passing game, and 60+ receptions seemed entirely possible. With McKinnon done for the year, the 49ers need to figure out how they’re going address this all season, but more immediately, against a tough Vikings defense in Week 1.