The 49ers made a big splash in the free agent market last year, signing speedy but under-utilized running back Jerick “Jet” McKinnon to an eyebrow-raising $30 million contract. He was strong in Minnesota, but his skills match Kyle Shanahan’s scheme much better and excitement was very high.
Then he kicked off the Niners’ nightmare of lacerated ligaments by tearing his ACL eight days before the start of the season. If that’s not foreshadowing, I don’t know what is. He should be back more or less for the start of this season, but in the meantime, the Niners have made their RB room the deepest on the team. UDFA Matt Breida was a breakout, surprise star and the team acquired Tevin Coleman, a similarly fast halfback who played for Shanahan in Atlanta.
Excitement is still there, but McKinnon’s path forward is much more complicated.
Experience: 5 accrued seasons
McKinnon signed a hefty $30 million contract as a free agent last year. This year, he’s making $5,750,000. $5,700,000 of which is guaranteed. So the team saves the cost of a BMW by cutting him, and the rest would be dead money.
What to expect in 2019
Before Adrian Peterson’s amazing recovery from his ACL tear, the injury was considered career-changing, if not career-ending. A player may fight his way back, but the default assumption was that they would lose a step, be too hesitant, or (like Sam Bradford) suffer another ACL tear.
Post-Peterson, the default assumption is now full recovery the following season, but that is as unrealistically positive as the older take was unrealistically negative. Sure, the effectiveness of surgical repair and rehab is much improved, but all of the earlier risks remain — especially with a player whose game is built around his speed, such as “Jet” McKinnon.
I wouldn’t pick him for fantasy football, that’s for sure. This is mostly because the 49ers have an incredibly deep RB room full of similar, quicksilver dual-threat backs. If his knee is anything less than 100% ready, there is no reason for the team to rush him back for game one. In fact, it makes sense to test out the newer halfbacks against the meh competition they face before the bye week.
There’s even a strategic reason: hold back game film for defensive coordinators to scheme against.
That said, McKinnon was the guy that John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan chose to build their offense around. If he recovers from his ACL tear, I expect him to explode into this offense. He had a full year to study this complex scheme, and a later start might make his impact even greater, giving Garoppolo time to shake off the cobwebs and get used to Deebo and Dante.
The 49ers are so deep at halfback that it’s unlikely any one player has a dominant season, unless they develop some kind of crazy chemistry with Jimmy G. It’s a competitive advantage for Shanahan if he can rotate between McKinnon, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida and even a little Mostert.
Even so, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if McKinnon returned in game 4 and still racked up 800 or 900 all-purpose yards. He is a major weapon on this roster.
Odds of making the roster
100%, unless he hurts a leg so badly in training camp that it’s amputated. He could lose a couple fingers and still make this team.