2018 Fantasy Football Free Agency: Is Jerick McKinnon Fantasy Football's next great running back?

Jerick McKinnon said he chose to sign with the 49ers because they would give him the chance to be a feature back. Head coach and offensive playcaller Kyle Shanahan backed that up in a big way. 

"He's good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He's good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third-down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach," Shanahan said. "Based off of what downs you put him in and that when you do put him in, the defense doesn't know exactly what type of plays you're trying to run because he can do it all." 

Then Shanahan went on to gush over McKinnon's receiving skills, and even implied that McKinnon's stats were "watered down" because of how he was used in Minnesota, insinuating that the 49ers will make better use of his versatility. 

Shahanan is known throughout his career for being a running back king maker. But it comes with a big caveat. 

Year Top RB FPTS/gm  Touches/gm
2017 Carlos Hyde 10.1 18.7
2016 Devonta Freeman 13.5 17.6
2015 Devonta Freeman 15.4 22.5
2014 Isaiah Crowell 6.4 9.8
2013 Alfred Morris 10.0 17.8
2012 Alfred Morris 14.4 21.6
2011 Roy Helu 7.9 13.3
2010 Ryan Torain 12.2 18.2
2009 Steve Slaton 11.5 15.9
2008 Steve Slaton 14.1 19.9

In eight of 10 seasons, a Shanahan running back averaged at least 10.0 Fantasy points per game. Sounds great, but those same running backs also averaged at least 15.9 touches per game. Can McKinnon get to 16 touches per game? Can he hold up getting 16 touches per game?

McKinnon's four-year touch average, including the playoffs, is 10.7 per game. That includes 12 games with three or fewer touches -- throw those out and his average improves to 12.9. That number ticks up to 13.3 if we only look at the 13 games he played without Adrian Peterson in 2016 and the 12 games he played without Dalvin Cook in 2017. That's not 16.

The reality is that over his 61-game career, McKinnon has been north of 16 touches 20 times, including seven in 2017. He's got a lot of work to do to get close to Hyde's 16-plus touches in 14 of 16 games (and 20-plus touches in six games) last season:

49ers RBs per game with Garoppolo: ATT: 27.2, YDS: 107.2: TD: 1.0; TAR: 7.8, REC: 6.0, REC YDS: 58.8, REC TD: 0

49ers RBs per game without Garoppolo: ATT: 20.1, YDS: 84.3, TD: 0.45; TAR: 11.5, REC: 7.5, REC YDS: 50.1, REC TD: 0.8

Fortunately, it's not worth worrying about any negative impact Jimmy Garoppolo might have based on last year's stats. With Garoppolo, running backs averaged 1.5 fewer catches per game (and most of them went to Juszczyk). That was then and this is now – we already know the 49ers plan on using McKinnon as a matchup disruptor out of the backfield. He will get catches! Plus, Garoppolo's presence meant a more consistent offense, one where running backs averaged 7.1 more carries and 22.9 more rush yards per game.

It all adds up to a pretty good opportunity for McKinnon to lead a ground game on a rising offense with a rising quarterback and a great playcaller. There is massive potential ... but it's best to project him conservatively.

The 49ers rushers averaged 27.2 carries per game with Garoppolo last year but didn't catch it much. Expect a downswing in carries per game and an uptick in catches. It's the way the game is going, and Shanahan seems to understand that. A 12-carry-per-game estimation for McKinnon seems fair along with a reception average exceeding anything we saw from any Niners running back in 2017. If Hyde averaged 3.7 catches per game, McKinnon should be at least a half-catch better. That would also mean he'd have over 16 touches per game, albeit barely.

McKinnon's rushing average has been all over the map, as high as 5.2 yards per run in 2015 and as low as 3.4 yards per carry in 2016. It's noticeably discouraging to see McKinnon fall below a 4.0 average in each of two seasons with at least 150 carries. The 49ers also don't have a dominant offensive line. Being cautious and lowering expectations to something like 3.8 yards per run isn't only warranted, it's reasonable.

We'd also expect a great receiving average – he had 8.3 yards per catch last year and 8.2 back in 2015 (5.9 yards per in 2016, ugh). Keeping it at 8.3 yards per catch is a nod that we're giving McKinnon (and Shanahan) the benefit of the doubt. 

As for touchdowns, McKinnon carried the ball inside the 5-yard line nine times in four years with Minnesota, scoring on three. Obviously not working in that role would cap his Fantasy value and force us to rely on him for total yards more than anything else. If he scores six times, it would be warmly received. 

Finally, are we sure he can hold up for 16 games? He'll be in a larger role for the first time in his career, and while we can't call him "injury prone," we can at least take notice of him missing a game here or there. We adjusted our projections for a 15-game season, not 16.

Early projection for Jerick McKinnon: 180 carries for 702 yards and three rushing touchdowns; 63 catches for 523 yards and three receiving touchdowns. 

It's eerily close to the total yardage and touchdowns scored by Lamar Miller last season – he finished as the No. 14 running back in non-PPR. Tack on McKinnon's catches for full PPR and he'd have finished as the No. 16 running back last season.

Every year there's a running back who changes teams and becomes an intriguing Fantasy option. McKinnon is this year's guy. It's a leap of faith to trust that his numbers will turn out good in Fantasy, but Shanahan's track record and desire to get him involved make McKinnon worth the risk.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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