Jerick McKinnon watched 49ers practice on Monday from the passenger seat of a golf cart with his right knee heavily wrapped and crutches in tow.
He’ll have to get used to that spot on the sideline after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in a light 30-minute practice over the weekend, costing him his first season with a new team after signing a lucrative contract in the spring.
But McKinnon missing his first campaign with San Francisco wasn’t at the forefront of his mind when he received the prognosis following an MRI on Saturday. He was more upset about not being able to play against his former team, the Minnesota Vikings, in this Sunday’s season opener.
“I was more devastated when it happened, just the feeling knowing that it wouldn’t be all right for Week 1,” McKinnon said while hunched over on crutches in front of his locker.
“This game probably meant a lot to me (more than) maybe anybody else, just going against my former team and stuff like that. So when it happened and I felt it, I would probably say that initial thought of, ‘Dang, I’m not going to have a week to get my knee right’ was probably the worst feeling. And then once they told me what the injury was, it just kind of confirmed it.”
McKinnon was surprisingly upbeat less than 48 hours after the career-altering news. He called the injury a “blessing in disguise” in a Tweet on Sunday and wrote he’ll “be back stronger than ever in 2019.” He said he received support from a wide range of people, including a number of former Vikings teammates. Surgery plans are pending. McKinnon was placed on season-ending injured reserve Monday.
The injury leaves the 49ers without their starting running back and key figure in the passing game, both as a tough cover out of the backfield and a blocker to help protect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The team signed McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract that included nearly $12 million in guarantees for this season because of his all-around skill set, despite working as a backup in his first four seasons with Minnesota.
“My main thing,” McKinnon said, “is just I’m excited for the process. It’s going to be a challenge, everything is a challenge. Everybody that knows me knows I love challenges, so I just see it as probably one of the toughest challenges I’m going to have to face, but I’m excited for it.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan will have to devise changes to his original game plan against the Vikings and one of the league’s most vaunted defenses on late notice. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer’s crew ranked first in yardage and scoring in 2017, while finishing second against the run.
Shanahan’s plan will include some combination of second-year player Matt Breida and veteran Alfred Morris, who was signed as a free agent Aug. 14 after McKinnon strained a calf during a training camp practice. But neither player has been made privy to Shanahan’s strategy when it comes to deploying his new-look running back corps.
Breida is coming off a separated shoulder sustained in the first quarter of the exhibition opener and said he’s good to go at Minnesota. Morris is still catching up on the playbook after being a late addition, but his knowledge of Shanahan’s system from his first two NFL seasons with the Washington Redskins is expediting the process, though he’s not quite where he wants to be.
“It’s not second nature yet and that kind of bothers me,” Morris said. “Because when you think, you’re not playing as fast.”
Morris said Shanahan’s offense has evolved since he last played for him with Washington in 2013, when Morris went to his first Pro-Bowl after logging 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns. That came after his rookie campaign when he was second in the league with 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. Morris was 24 when he first joined Shanahan. He’ll turn 30 in December, which is considered threadbare for a running back.
Breida (5-10, 190) has a skill set that more closely resembles McKinnon (5-9, 205). They share similar size and speed, while Morris (5-10, 222) is heavier and better equipped to run between the tackles. Morris solidified his standing with his new team after an impressive outing in the third preseason game, rushing for 87 yards on 17 carries.
McKinnon offered scouting reports of his replacements.
“Matt’s obviously faster than Alfred. Alfred’s been in the scheme before,” he said. “Alfred’s been a Pro Bowler in the scheme. When I see him run, I can see why he’s so successful, because he makes the right cuts and smart moves, and puts the ball where it needs to be placed. So I think he’s going to help Matt come along in that aspect. It’s only going to make them both better. When you got two backs, iron sharpens iron, that’s all that is. I’m looking forward to watching those guys.”
Breida averaged 4.4 yards per carry as a reserve in 2017, when he signed as an undrafted rookie following an uninspiring final season at Georgia Southern. He rotated with Carlos Hyde and received playing time over Hyde during an overtime road loss to the Indianapolis Colts last October.
“He’s very smart and he’s sharp,” Morris said of Breida. “When I have questions about the offense, him and Juice (fullback Kyle Juszczyk) are the two guys I ask questions (to). ... Definitely a change-of-pace type of guy. I mean, honestly, you can say that, but I think he could carry the load if he had to. I think it’d be a different role for him, but I think mentally he has the capacity to be able to do that.”