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49ers banking on a breakout season from Jerick McKinnon in the NFC West

NFL: NFC Championship-Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are hoping to turn things around this season and at the very least, make the NFC West a bit more competitive. While I don’t see them giving the Los Angeles Rams a run for their money at the top of the division, there have been some significant improvements as far as their running game goes.

In the offseason, San Francisco signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract. Despite spending the majority of his time with the Minnesota Vikings as a complementary back - with just 14 starts over four years - the Niners are banking on McKinnon to step up and be their starting running back this season.

McKinnon has wasted no time making an impression on his new team. Running backs coach Bobby Turner has been singing his praises all throughout the offseason:

“He competes every snap. It’s important to him. He’s here for a reason. We feel that he’s going to be productive and help take us to the next level. We’re expecting great things out of him.”

Over the course of four seasons, McKinnon has averaged 4.0 yards per carry, which makes some skeptical about what he’ll actually be able to bring to San Francisco's offense as the lead back. But perhaps with a heavier workload, he’ll be able to produce more on the field.

In games where McKinnon carried the ball 15 times or more, his yards per carry jumps up to 4.5. Also important to note, McKinnon’s yards per catch was 8.3 yards per reception last season on 51 catches, something critical in a Shanahan offense.

If Jimmy Garoppolo can set him up for these types of passes in space throughout the season, it could be huge for their offense. Shanahan utilizes his running backs in the passing game as well as anyone, highlighted by the Atlanta Falcons’ historic 2016 season when Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 85 catches, 883 yards and five touchdowns.

Turner mentioned that he thinks this aspect of McKinnon’s game will be key for the 49ers offense going forward:

“We’re looking for a complete running back. He can catch the ball. He can pass block, and he can finish every play. One thing that is different, he is faster. He has that explosive speed. When he breaks level two, level three, he has that explosive speed that can separate him from everyone else.”

Speed is going to be McKinnon’s saving grace. His DYAR and DVOA rating from last season wasn’t spectacular, at -24 and -12.7%, respectively. He ranked 40th overall in both categories out of 47 players total. But the man certainly knows how to tear his way up the field:

However, Shanahan doesn’t care about last season’s numbers with a different team, he only sees a fit for the future.

“I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.”

It’s almost as if Shanahan views McKinnon more like a very expensive rookie than as a free agent with four years or professional experience under his belt. Whether that’s a good plan or not remains to be seen, but he can impressively handle large defenders:

While this mostly highlights his ability to be of use in pass protection, this skill will more than come in handy when he’s trying to rip through opposing defense and get himself up the field. It’s why I think he can actually be a deadly piece in San Francisco’s run game. It’s that hustle, and that “small-dog” mentality that’s got him to this point so far.

I mean, just look at this hit on Ronald Darby:

He can bring that same impact with the ball too. Just look at how he levels this Steelers defender:

Fearless. Never count out the guy who feels like he’s constantly got something to prove. Because while the numbers in the past haven’t been spectacular, McKinnon seems ready to take on the lead role for the 49ers.

Time will tell if San Francisco putting their money on McKinnon’s potential will pay off. The Seahawks won’t meet the Niners until December, and who knows what their backfield will look like by then. Nobody knew that Seattle would be facing off against the likes of Garoppolo when folks were previewing San Francisco’s offense last summer. Many things will change.

Shanahan hopes that McKinnon is among the things that will be different than they were before.