49ers running back Jerick McKinnon took an important step in returning to the field Tuesday, but it could be some time before he sees meaningful action in practice or preseason games.
“It’s been a long process,” McKinnon told reporters after his first practice back from injury. “I’m just thankful to be back out there, around the guys, in the huddle, hear the play calls and just get back into the small things about football. It definitely was a great feeling being out there and being able to move around.”
McKinnon was activated off the physically unable to perform list before Tuesday’s practice. He suited up in full uniform and pads for the first time since suffering a right ACL tear during a practice a week before the 2018 season opener. He was limited to individual drills during the morning session, though he’s allowed to participate in team walkthroughs now that he’s a member of the offseason 90-man roster.
The 49ers signed McKinnon to be their lead running back in 2018 to replace departed free agent Carlos Hyde. But McKinnon’s injury meant he’s still waiting to make his regular season debut with his new team after signing a four-year, $30 million contract that made him one of the league’s highest paid running backs despite never working as a full-time starter previously with the Minnesota Vikings.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan wanted to make McKinnon a key part of the offense last year, particularly in the passing game on third-down situations. His absence was felt throughout the season as former undrafted rookie Matt Breida thrust into a starting role.
“We were just glad to have him out (at practice),” Shanahan said of McKinnon. “I know he probably had a lot of butterflies getting out for the first time, but we only let him go on air. He was just able to do individual and stuff like that. We’ll watch it again on the tape when we get in and evaluate it, but he’s been looking good for a little bit now on air.”
McKinnon is electing not to wear a brace on his surgically repaired knee like quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is while coming off a similar injury. McKinnon caught passes and ran routes at roughly half speed without looking encumbered by the injury.
“There’s no need to wear it,” McKinnon said. “It’s a mental mindset thing for me. I haven’t been wearing it and I don’t plan on wearing during the season, so no need to wear it right now.”
McKinnon had been hoping to be ready for the first training camp practice July 27, but suffered a setback that led to opening on PUP. He told reporters he wasn’t exactly sure what happened with the “flare up” regarding his knee.
“It was a little frustrating just because I wanted to be back that first day,” he said. “At the same time, this is a process and anybody who’s been through the process will tell you that everybody’s process is a little bit different than the next man. So for me, it’s just about taking the ups and downs and adapting to it, adjusting to it, and, just keep rolling in stride.”
McKinnon’s role for the regular season figures to be prominent, though it’s unclear if he’ll unseat newcomer Tevin Coleman for the starting job.
Coleman has been the lead back throughout training camp after signing a surprise deal to rejoin Shanahan in San Francisco after the Falcons drafted Coleman while Shanahan was their offensive coordinator in 2015. Coleman scored 28 touchdowns the past three seasons.
“We studied Jet (McKinnon) and compared him to everyone else,” Shanahan said when asked what he’ll bring in his return.
“We feel like we kind of got the best of both worlds. You’ve got a guy who is very good at beating man-to-man coverage when going against linebackers and safeties. You’ve got a guy who’s got the size to protect and really step up in the A-gap and handle some of these bigger backers. Also, he’s a good running back, so we’re being patient with Jet. We know what he can do, we know what he’s capable of, we’re just trying to take the pressure off of him and give him some time to get where he’s been.”
Shanahan needs more from wideouts
Arguably the most jumbled and intriguing position battle at 49ers training camp is at receiver. There appears to be eight players worthy of playing on NFL rosters in 2019, though it’s likely San Francisco keeps five or six, leaving some difficult decisions for the coaching staff.
Shanahan has said he likes the talent and depth on the roster. But he had some harsh words following an even practice Tuesday.
“There’s a number of guys out there and we need that group to step up,” he said. “We have some ability in that group, but the consistency isn’t there. Of course with rookies, but also the vets too. I’m expecting all those guys to do better and they all need to pick it up.”
The 49ers invested second-round picks in consecutive drafts in Dante Pettis (2018) and Deebo Samuel (2019), and will need those players to be productive in the fall if the team hopes to contend for a playoff spot. Pettis, at times, has struggled with physicality from defensive backs while Samuel is still early in the process of absorbing Shanahan’s complex playbook.
The coming preseason opener Saturday against the Cowboys, and joint practices with the Denver Broncos next week, could prove vital in helping Shanahan figure out which receivers he plans on keeping for the final 53-man roster.
▪ Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon returned to practice Tuesday after missing a few practices with a glute issue. Slot cornerback K’Waun Williams missed Tuesday with a knee injury. Linebacker Malcolm Smith dressed and stretched but sat out of drills with hamstring tightness. Defensive lineman Jamell Garcia-Wiilliams was sidelined with a concussion. Veteran right guard Mike Person was given a “vet day” off after appearing to suffering a lower body injury during practice on Sunday.