The 49ers added another pair of fast feet – and soft hands – to their backfield Wednesday, when they signed former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon to a four-year contract.
While McKinnon was inbound, the team's incumbent tailback, Carlos Hyde, was leaving for Cleveland, where he was expected to sign with the Browns. McKinnon, 25, is set to earn a reported $30 million over the life of his contract, a hefty contract for a 5-9, 205-pound tailback who never has been a full-time starter. Hyde's deal was reported at a more modest three years and $15 million.
With Hyde gone, McKinnon becomes the featured runner in coach Kyle Shanahan's system, one that also will utilize 2017 rookie Matt Breida. Shanahan likely envisions something similar to his running back duo when he was the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator. That duo was composed of Devonta Freeman – who is similar in size to McKinnon – and the more stout Tevin Coleman. They combined for nearly 1,600 rushing yards and 85 receptions in 2016.
Joe Williams, Jeremy McNichols and Raheem Mostert are in the mix as well for San Francisco. Breida had 105 carries last year while Mostert, a special teams standout, had six. Williams did not play because of an ankle injury while McNichols spent most of the season on the practice squad.
The 49ers were rumored to be interested in McKinnon at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. He rushed for 1,918 yards and seven touchdowns in four seasons in Minnesota. But he did so primarily as a third-down or change-of-pace runner. Most of his 14 career starts in that span came when then-featured runner Adrian Peterson was injured. McKinnon rushed for more than 100 yards in only one of those starts and averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards a carry in the others.
Significant for Shanahan and his offensive system, however: McKinnon is a good pass catcher, just as his tailbacks in Atlanta were. He has 142 receptions for 984 yards and five touchdowns in his career. He's also dangerous in the open field, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds four years ago.
San Francisco's top two runners, McKinnon and Breida, played at Georgia Southern. McKinnon began his tenure there as a quarterback. He also lined up at cornerback, receiver and ultimately tailback, which gives a sense of the flexibility Shanahan likely finds intriguing.
"Jerick has proven to be an extremely versatile football player whose speed, elusiveness and tackle-breaking ability make him a very difficult matchup for defenses," 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement. A press conference introducing McKinnon and offensive lineman Weston Richburg is scheduled for Thursday.
Hyde, meanwhile, led San Francisco with 59 receptions last year. But the power-running tailback was not a natural pass catcher and had nine drops on the season, according to Pro Football Focus, several of them in a rainy midseason loss in Philadelphia.
The 49ers drafted Hyde, 27, in the second round in 2014 to replace Frank Gore, a free agent who visited the Detroit Lions on Wednesday. While Gore was a perennial 1,000-yard rusher for the 49ers, Hyde never hit that threshold in four NFL seasons. The 2017 season was the only one in four years in which he played all 16 games.
His agents and the 49ers discussed numbers throughout the year but didn't come close on a deal.
In other free-agency news, the 49ers and linebacker Brock Coyle agreed to terms on a three-year deal. Coyle started 10 games in 2017 after injuries – and NaVorro Bowman's release – hit the position. Brandon Fusco, who started 16 games at right guard a year ago, plans to sign a three-year deal with the Falcons.