Fantasy Football Player Debate: Jerick McKinnon

Aug 23, 2018

Sometimes, players just need a change of scenery to explode onto the fantasy football scene. Jerick McKinnon has been around for a while, but despite his crazy athleticism wasn’t able to put it all together as a member of the Minnesota Vikings. He’s now with the 49ers, and his new team invested a lot of money to bring him in.

So, new team, big-time athlete, and a big contract paired with disappointing early career numbers. What are fantasy owners to make of McKinnon?

Two of our writers, Andrew Seifter and Eli Weiner, face off in a debate over the outlook for McKinnon in 2018.

McKinnon is the RB15 in PPR leagues according to our consensus ADP.

Of the 96 experts that have submitted PPR rankings, 77 have McKinnon as their RB15 or better, while the rest disagree with his current PPR ADP.

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Andrew: McKinnon has become a polarizing player, but that just means he could end up being a draft day bargain. This is a player who finished as a fantasy RB2 in Minnesota last season in both standard and PPR formats, even though he was never given an opportunity to be the featured back.

Now, McKinnon heads to San Francisco, where his hefty contract (tops among all free agent RBs) shows he’ll be the clear number one back in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Shanahan is an offensive mastermind who has produced a top-10 fantasy RB for three years running, including two top-six seasons from Devonta Freeman and even a top-10 season from Carlos Hyde. I don’t expect McKinnon to be a true “bellcow,” but he will reportedly play the “Freeman role” in Shanahan’s offense, which should give him more than enough touches to be a huge fantasy factor. He is going to play on all three downs and faces little serious competition for the lead back job.

McKinnon is an athletic freak (his SPARQ score was in the 100th percentile), and with coaching scheme and opportunity finally on his side, he’s bound to improve on last year’s numbers. That puts him squarely in the low-end RB1 conversation.

Eli: My issue isn’t with McKinnon’s athleticism or Shanahan’s scheme as both are proven commodities. The situation is why McKinnon’s ADP is in the early portion of the third round. But I take qualms with the notion that “he was never given an opportunity to be the featured back” in Minnesota. Are we sure that’s the case?

In 2014, Adrian Peterson missed 15 games of the season due to suspension, leaving behind Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata to fight for the scraps. Asiata, he of the 3.5 yards per carry career average, out-carried McKinnon 164-113, scoring nine touchdowns to McKinnon’s zero, and also out-caught him 44-27. Sure, he was a rookie, but McKinnon wasn’t able to wrest away the starting job from a noted plodder. The opportunity was there.

Then in 2016, Peterson again missed most of the season, this time to recover from knee surgery. McKinnon was finally able to out-carry Asiata 159-121 and out-receive him 43-32, but he struggled with the larger workload and only averaged 3.4 ypc, similar to Asiata’s average behind the same offensive line. Asiata managed six touchdowns that year to McKinnon’s two and was clearly the preferred goal line back in Minnesota.

Entering 2017, the Vikings didn’t feel comfortable with McKinnon as the team’s lead back, signing Latavius Murray in free agency and then drafting Dalvin Cook in the second round. Cook went down with an ACL tear, and Murray went on to out-carry McKinnon 216 to 150. McKinnon has had opportunities to earn a feature-back role, but to this point hasn’t been able to beat out uninspiring talents Matt Asiata and Latavius Murray for the job. Either he didn’t deserve to beat them, or more likely, his coaching staffs didn’t feel comfortable giving him more than 160 carries in a season.

Andrew: Just because McKinnon faced weak competition for carries doesn’t mean he was actually given an opportunity to be the featured back. Your argument seems to be premised on the notion that coaches always make the correct decision about how to allocate touches. It’s true that the Minnesota coaching staff opted to give touches to Asiata and Murray at McKinnon’s expense, but that doesn’t mean it was a wise decision. Kyle Shanahan pretty clearly thinks it wasn’t, or he wouldn’t have signed off on handing McKinnon $30 million (including $18 million guaranteed) to handle a featured role.

So what did McKinnon do in the rare games where he was a featured back? He was given 20+ touches just three times last season. In those three games, he averaged 122.3 total yards and scored four touchdowns. Those are elite RB1 numbers, and don’t even count the 126 yards on 21 touches that he put up in Minnesota’s season-ending playoff loss in Philadelphia.

It’s fair to point out that McKinnon’s yards per carry average has been fairly pedestrian the last couple years, but it was actually quite elite in 2014 (4.8) and 2015 (5.2). Even his 3.8 ypc last season was in the same vicinity as obvious top-10 RBs Ezekiel Elliot (4.1), Le’Veon Bell (4.0), Melvin Gordon (3.9), and Leonard Fournette (3.8).

Given McKinnon’s athletic prowess, Shanahan’s proven coaching scheme, and an extended opportunity to get into a groove rushing the football, it’s quite likely that McKinnon boosts his ypc well over 4.0 this season. But even if he doesn’t, he can still be an elite fantasy RB due to his sizable workload and projected receiving volume. Just look at Melvin Gordon. He’s never averaged 4.0 yards per carry in his career, but has now been a top-seven fantasy RB in back-to-back seasons. Opportunity goes a long way in this game, and McKinnon’s moment has finally come.

Eli: Those are all very valid points and definitely an important note in general: opportunity trumps efficiency. It’s not that McKinnon’s lowered efficiency will significantly hurt his fantasy stock if given workhouse volume, it’s that it hinders his ability to get that volume in the first place. Kyle Shanahan isn’t going to give McKinnon 200 more carries than Matt Breida if Breida is far more efficient, which he was last year.

Football Outsiders uses several key rushing metrics that help evaluate the efficiency of running backs, namely Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR), Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Success Rate. You can read up on them here. Out of 47 qualifying running backs, McKinnon ranked 41st in DYAR, 40th in DVOA, and 28th in Success Rate. Breida ranked 15th in DYAR, 5th in DVOA and 16th in Success Rate. He’s no slouch and was in fact significantly more efficient than McKinnon was in 2017.

It worries me that we’re projecting RB1 numbers for a player who’s never recorded more than 159 carries or 570 rushing yards in a season. Doing so requires a big leap. McKinnon hasn’t exactly been injury-prone over his career, but we have no evidence that supports he’s capable of handling a 300-touch workload, which many running backs can’t do.

Shanahan clearly didn’t agree with Minnesota’s coaching staff, and I’m all for following the money as it relates to fantasy football. I think it’s important to evaluate all factors, however, and it worries me that McKinnon wasn’t able to supersede Asiata and Murray over a large span of time. Most importantly, he wasn’t able to ever win the goal line/short-yardage role. This is what concerns me the most. While he should have the pass-catching role secured, it’s still possible McKinnon doesn’t earn those ultra-valuable touches near the goal line. Considering Breida was more efficient than McKinnon last year and has a similar athletic profile, it’s possible this touch split is much closer than we’re projecting or even that Breida wins the short-yardage role outright.

Andrew: I concede the point about McKinnon’s efficiency last year, but I would just point out that he was much better in the Football Outsiders metrics you mentioned earlier in his career. So I’m willing to bet that the ability is still there and that better coaching and scheme can bring the best out of him. Sure, if he falls flat on his face, the 49ers could eventually be forced to turn more to Breida, but that would be true of just about any running back. I expect San Francisco to give McKinnon a very extended audition given the large financial investment they’ve made in him, and I expect him to run with the opportunity (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun there).

It’s also fair to note that we’ve never seen McKinnon handle more than 159 carries in a season, and that not every back is built to handle a heavy workload. But if we had applied that same standard last year, we would have had to shy away from guys like Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, and Leonard Fournette, who all ended up as top-10 fantasy RBs. McKinnon’s situation is admittedly a bit different because he isn’t a rookie, but he is nearly identical in both height and weight to the aforementioned Devonta Freeman, who has handled 196+ carries for three straight years. Breida is actually smaller than McKinnon, so I doubt he will end up vulturing the goal line work.

In my mind, the best comp for McKinnon this season is Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey hasn’t proven he can be a high volume NFL rusher either, but it certainly looks like he will get the chance to prove he can do it. And both McKinnon and McCaffrey are going to put up huge receiving numbers that can give them a solid floor even if their rushing volume isn’t as high as hoped or their rushing efficiency remains subpar. Both are in the low-end RB1 conversation for me, and while I do slightly prefer McCaffrey, McKinnon is much cheaper at draft tables.

I’m willing to acknowledge that there is risk involved in drafting McKinnon, but how else could you get a potential RB1 in the third round of drafts? I would never draft him ahead of more proven commodities like Hunt, Kamara, and Fournette. But I would gladly take McKinnon ahead of guys like Jordan Howard and Alex Collins, who are two-down grinders that have already demonstrated their fantasy limitations. He should also go ahead of LeSean McCoy, who is in a bad offense and has off-field concerns, and Joe Mixon, who struggled with efficiency problems of his own but unlike McKinnon isn’t moving into a better team situation. There is a big drop off after the first 11 or 12 RBs, and McKinnon is one of the few RBs available a round or two later who can potentially push his way into that upper echelon.

Eli: First off, don’t ever apologize for a good pun. It’s certainly possible McKinnon is a better player than those metrics suggest, but the point is we now have a two-year sample size of him grading poorly in those advanced efficiency metrics. While it’s not concerning to the point that he can’t be a good fantasy player, it still leaves the door open for Breida, who graded quite efficiently, to earn more opportunity. We’ve also learned based on camp reports that the Niners “do not envision McKinnon as a bell-cow running back.”

I’m not sure I agree here. Fournette handled 300 carries his sophomore year at LSU, so we had evidence of him handling a large workload successfully. Kareem Hunt had 262 carries his senior year and had ramped up his touch total each season to that point. While McKinnon did handle 269 carries his junior year as an option quarterback, since then he has never tallied more than 161 in a season, which was his senior year of college. And the McCaffrey comparison is questionable, given that McCaffrey handled 337(!) carries his sophomore year. That’s more carries than McKinnon has received over the last two NFL seasons combined.

Fantasy is a large game of probability. While it’s possible McKinnon can be a workhorse, we have little evidence supporting this over a decent sample size. So while it’s possible, is it probable?

It helps McKinnon that he should have the receiving game floor, and it’s definitely something baked into his draft cost. He does have more receiving upside than Howard or Collins, and I’m scared to death of McCoy right now. All of the running backs in this tier have their warts.

I do like McKinnon and his situation. Like you put it, he’s in the low-end RB1 discussion. But after all, none of this happens in a vacuum. In an industry draft I’m currently in, McKinnon just went at 2.08 as the RB12 off the board, higher than his current ADP suggests. But while the opportunity is certainly there in the “Devonta Freeman” role, this feels like we’re drafting McKinnon at his ceiling, something I’m not comfortable doing. Given his inability to beat out average-level talent, little history of handling bell-cow volume and his already injured knee, McKinnon is a fade for me at his current ADP.

Thanks again to Andrew and Eli for taking part in this debate. Let us know what you expect from Jerick McKinnon in 2018 @FantasyPros.

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Eli Weiner is a correspondent at FantasyPros, a writer for numberFire and a contributor and editor for SconnieSportsTalk. For more from Eli, you can view his archive or follow him @eweiner_bball.

Andrew Seifter is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive and follow him @andrew_seifter.

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