San Francisco 49ers

Jerick McKinnon eager to get back into 49ers’ backfield following offseason uncertainty

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Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers’ most notable moves of the NFL offseason
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Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers’ most notable moves of the NFL offseason

Jerick McKinnon came to the 49ers in 2018 believing he could step outside the wide shadow cast by Adrian Peterson, to whom McKinnon served as understudy in his first NFL stop with the Minnesota Vikings.

McKinnon signed an eyebrow-raising four-year, $30 million contract to become a fulcrum of coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

He saw what Shanahan did with a similarly skilled running back in Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons, who went from little-known fourth-round draft pick to a 1,000-yard rusher.

Given McKinnon’s elite athleticism (4.41 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 40-inch vertical jump, 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the 2014 combine), he seemed poised to have a breakout campaign as a full-time starter for Shanahan after never getting more than 159 carries or rushing for more than 570 yards in a season over four years in Minnesota.

The signs were there in training camp last summer. McKinnon’s speed sparkled. But perhaps more noticeable was his versatility in the passing game. He would regularly dust linebackers and outmaneuver defensive backs, looking like a dynamic underneath threat the 49ers lacked during Shanahan’s first season designing the offense.

Of course, McKinnon has not played a regular-season game with San Francisco. He suffered an ACL tear during a practice a week before the season opener. He spoke about his recovery Wednesday, hours before the NFL schedule was released, giving McKinnon a list of dates when he could eventually make his 49ers debut. But he’s trying not to look ahead.

“It’s a little hard, just because I haven’t played in so long,” McKinnon said. “So you want to get that first game so bad just to be back out there. Every day’s a work in progress and you got to win the day, especially in the rehab process.”

McKinnon said the goal was to be ready for the start of training camp in late July, around the time quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is expected to be cleared for full-team drills.

But Garoppolo’s position is far more stationary than McKinnon’s, who will put far more stress on his knees. The 49ers might be inclined to take things slowly with McKinnon, even though he and Garoppolo are coming off similar ACL tears with similar time frames.

“I’ve been running straight, cutting, all that type of stuff,” McKinnon said. “It’s a timetable thing. But I feel good and I’m just excited for what’s ahead of me.”

The outlook for McKinnon has taken a sharp turn in the year since he became the league’s seventh-highest paid running back annually. His injury could cost him valuable reps in training camp — and the team signed another possible starter at running back in Tevin Coleman, who came from the Falcons after Shanahan played a critical role in drafting him as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator in 2015.

There was speculation that McKinnon, given his $5.75 million cap hit plus the uncertainty of the injury, might not stick around. The 49ers have depth at the position with Coleman, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, who have enough talent to be valuable contributors within Shanahan’s offense.

The notion of McKinnon’s departure was quickly shot down.

“Jerick is going to be a part of us,” general manager John Lynch said at the owners meetings in March. “We’re excited to see that through. Jerick is working incredibly hard. It was an unfortunate blow that happened to him, but you never like to see that and this year, last year, we were extremely excited that we had him, but he’s always had kind of a chip on his shoulder because that was his first opportunity to be the guy, and I’m sure he’ll have a bigger chip on his shoulder.”

McKinnon has taken the Coleman addition in stride and thinks it could lead to the 49ers having one of the NFL’s best running back groups, if everyone can stay on the field. Breida dealt with ankle injuries throughout 2018, and Mostert fractured his arm in November after averaging 8.9 yards per carry from Weeks 6 through 9.

“It’s another weapon,” McKinnon said of Coleman. “I watched him play in Atlanta. He’s explosive. If we’re not the best running back group, I think everybody in that room is going to be disappointed with the type of ability that we have. He’s a great teammate, got a great personality, and I look forward to working with him.”

San Francisco should also have one of the league’s fastest group of rushers. Coleman ran a blistering 4.39 before getting drafted. Breida, nicknamed “Cheetah,” posted a 4.38 at his Georgia Southern pro day. Mostert was a college track star at Purdue and reportedly logged a 4.34 before entering the league.

Asked which 49ers back is the fastest, McKinnon indicated he’ll need to get healthy before everyone can find out.

“I don’t know. Ya’ll are going to have to give me some time,” he laughed. “I just know it’s a lot of speed. If it’s a (four-by-100 meter race) around the league of running backs, we should win. Easily.”

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