Jerick McKinnon: Fantasy Football’s Best Bargain
Fantasy football is a stock market. You’re investing principle (a draft pick or auction dollars) into stocks (players) by judging their upside or downside (fantasy ceilings and floors). You need to choose the right time (round) to invest, and hope the value meets or, ideally, exceeds the price you’ve paid.
Moreover, and just like on Wall Street, these values are in constant flux. From coaching changes, to free agency, to the draft, and every OTA report in between, fantasy worths are ever changing. No one exemplifies this more than new 49ers RB Jerick McKinnon (RB – SF).
Before free agency, McKinnon was little more than a draft-day afterthought. If he remained in Minnesota, McKinnon’s ceiling would’ve been capped at “upside handcuff;” in a new home, McKinnon’s “best case” seemed destined to be a “prominent pass-catching committee back.”
Then, Kyle Shanahan came calling. Yes, the “Godfather of Zone Blocking” and master of turning no-names into RB1 monsters (more on this later).
In fact, Shanahan didn’t just call. He did all but write a blank check, as a four-year, $30 million deal made McKinnon the NFL’s fourth-highest paid RB per annual earnings, in addition to the (by far) biggest winner of a very hectic 2018 free agency period.
Now, the talented and, thus far, underutilized back should be valued as a bonafide RB1 and fantasy first rounder. Instead, the Fantasy Stock Market has been slow to catch up.
According to the ECR, McKinnon currently ranks 48th overall and as the RB21. Even if we’re only in April and this absurdly low price feels due for a market correction, it’s crucial to take note of this and other discounts now — especially if participating in best ball drafts. As such, here are all the reasons why McKinnon will be a top-10 RB worthy of a top-15 pick (currently No.12 on my Big Board)… and why anything less will make him one of 2018’s top fantasy football bargains.
The Track Record
The Shanahan Workhorse. Any fantasy football wolf’s mouth begins to water at the mere mention of those words. Once you start throwing out the appropriate “zone blocking scheme” and “heavy target share” follow-ups, many fantasy owners (myself included) will begin licking their chops in anticipation of drafting the next “Shanahan steal.”
You see, I’ve long been a “Shanahan backfield truther.” Since Mike Shanahan’s days with Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis, my dreams have been blessed with one-cut-and-go backs carving through defenses, as if a hot knife cutting through butter. And while I’ve been burned by “Shanahan-igans” once or twice, this is a fantasy bet I’ve rarely regretted hammering. Time and time again, Mike and his son Kyle have churned out fantasy monsters. In fact, five of Kyle’s last six RBs have been top-15 fantasy backs.
Most recently, an “ill-fitting” Carlos Hyde (RB – CLE) was the RB8 in fantasy thanks to 1,288 total yards, eight TDs, and 59 catches. The two seasons before, Devonta Freeman (RB – ATL) broke out with 1,634 total yards, 14 TDs, and 73 receptions in 2015, and then maintained his RB1 status due to 1,541 total yards, 13 total TDs, and 54 catches in 2016.
A laughably bad Browns team yielded minimal results from anyone in 2014. However, Alfred Morris (RB – DAL) was an actual thing thanks to Shanahan in 2012 (1,613 rushing yards, 13 TDs) and 2013 (1,275 rushing, seven TDs). Hell, even Steve Slaton was an elite RB1 under Kyle (1,659 total yards, 10 TDs, 50 rec.).
With this track record, I shouldn’t have to remind you the elder Shanahan made fantasy monsters out of no-names like Mike Anderson (1,226 total yards, 13 TDs in ’05; 1,656 total yds and 15 TDs in ’00) and Reuben Droughns (1,481 total yds, eight TDs). He also made legends out of legit talents like Clinton Portis (1,905 tot yds, 14 TDs in ’03; 1,872 yds, 17 TDs in ’02) and Terrell Davis (2,225 yds, 23 TDs in ’98; 2,037 yds, 15 TDs in ’97; 1,848 yds, 15 TDs in ’96).
The track record is impossible, and foolish, to ignore. But what makes this setup so appealing, after all?
Kyle and his father Mike have become infamous for their zone blocking scheme. Though many other teams have featured zone-running principles, no one has taught or executed it at the Shanahan level. The family is deservedly recognized as the ZBS disciples.
In a nutshell, zone blocking requires linemen to block areas instead of specific players. Via double-teams and releases, linemen work as a unit to block these zones and pick up whoever crosses their paths. This system creates massive initial lanes and cutback opportunities, using the defense’s pursuit to the runner’s advantage.
This unique style requires athletic and cerebral lineman. It also necessitates a particular type of runner, which is why McKinnon should thrive.
The Glove-like Fit
Running backs must possess very specific traits to thrive in a zone-blocking scheme. Vision is the most essential asset, followed closely by patience and acceleration. In a matter of seconds, the back needs to quickly see how the initial run lanes are unfolding, check the cutback, decide which path is clearest, put his foot into the ground, and go. A well-executed zone blocking system is a real joy to watch, with the back and his blockers moving in perfect harmony for chunk gain after chunk gain.
As such, Shanahan seeks a particular profile and type of game for his lead backs. Inking McKinnon to the fourth-highest RB contract – almost double that of Carlos Hyde, despite his 2017 success – suggests the coach views McKinnon as a perfect fit.
Based on his limited game tape, and combine measurables, we tend to agree. Let’s start with the obvious — McKinnon is an athletic freak:
Yes, in perhaps the greatest combine performance in history, McKinnon led the 2014 event in every single meaningful stat. He will not lack for the acceleration, lateral-cutting, or speed to rack up monster runs, nor the power and toughness to break through arm tackles and reach the second level. Remember how excited Saquon Barkley’s 29 bench reps had you?
Still, vision is most crucial. Even in a primarily power-based attack, McKinnon continually flashed patience in letting blocks unfold, especially on the second level and in space down the field.
Don’t take my word, though. Trust the coach who’s forged a career on finding late and undrafted talent that fits his scheme. In watching McKinnon, Shanahan “got lost” in what he saw:
“There’s so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do,” Shanahan said Thursday. “Even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you’ve still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it.
I know the stuff we liked him on – if I could just cut up those numbers I think they would have been good numbers. But when you take the whole accumulation of things, I think they watered things down.”
Beyond just running, however, is McKinnon’s versatility. While one-dimensional backs like Morris have thrived strictly on vision and acceleration, all-purpose backs like Freeman and Slaton have put up even gaudier numbers. Shanahan consistently schemes up screens and dump-offs, especially on third downs, to keep the chains moving.
Even Hyde, a below-average receiving back, ran the third-most RB pass routes (296) in 2017. That was more than Todd Gurley (RB-LA) and Alvin Kamara (RB – NO) and trailed only Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR) and Le’Veon Bell (RB -PIT). McKinnon is far smoother in his routes, and much more dangerous in space and after the catch:
“What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game,” Shanahan said. “When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams. I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run.
I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him. He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.“
Thus, most 49ers insiders expect McKinnon’s role to mirror Freeman. This amounted to 265 carries and 97 targets in 2015 (362 opportunities), and 227 carries and 65 targets in 2016 (292 opportunities) – 64 more chances than McKinnon’s career high of 218. Freeman was a bonafide RB1 with this work, amassing over 1,500 yards from scrimmage in both seasons (1,634 and 1,541 total yards), along with 14 + 13 TDs, and 73 + 54 receptions respectively. With a highly similar build, running style, and versatility, to Freeman, McKinnon should put up very similar numbers with equal usage.
Summary: McKinnon = 2018’s Enormous Bargain and Breakout RB1
McKinnon is not without risk. He’s never handled “workhorse” volume and seems small-ish for featured work at only 5’9″ and 209 lbs. Moreover, “on paper” fits never guarantee “on field” results, and McKinnon could fall flat on his face with a lack of track record. Lastly, the line, even with promising new center Weston Richburg, remains a bottom-15 unit.
But Shanahan and his RB1-breeding track record are well-worth betting on. Amidst an insanely deep draft class and talented free agent pool that included Hyde and Dion Lewis, Shanahan would never have thrown so much dough at an otherwise lightly-used back, unless he has the utmost confidence in his fit. And whenever the RBs talents match this zone-blocking scheme, the stats have been enormous.
McKinnon brings the versatility, vision, patience, and lateral quickness to become Shanahan’s latest 1,500 total yard, 60+ reception, eight-to-10 TD masterpiece. If I had the security of Antonio Brown (WR – PIT) as a Round 1 wideout, McKinnon would be my ideal Round 2 target.
As currently situated, he’ll have every chance at top-five, RB1 numbers without the same price tag. Should this backfield remain largely similar come July, consider McKinnon the latest member of my 2018 “All-In” fantasy football team.
Wolf’s Projection: 225 carries, 73 targets, 1,510 total yards, nine TDs, and 65 receptions