Jerick McKinnon was a very good running back for the Minnesota Vikings, but hardly an elite one.
Yet 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan believes McKinnon can be great in San Francisco's offense, and the team went after him hard in free agency, signing him to a rich, four-year deal.
Now that McKinnon will be wearing 49ers colors, Shanahan says he was excited by what he saw when McKinnon was a Viking. McKinnon was a gifted receiver, route runner, ball-carrier and blocker. Shanahan sees him as a matchup nightmare for linebackers in the short passing game.
"There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff we would do," Shanahan told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. "Even though there wasn't a ton of it, you’ve still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it."
Shanahan expects to employ McKinnon as a big part of his passing game. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo excels with his accuracy in the short passing zones and McKinnon’s speed could help turn short catches into long gains.
"What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game," Shanahan said. "When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he's an issue for teams. I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run."
Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com also wrote that Shanahan was impressed not just by what McKinnon did on the field, but what he did off the field. He loved his work ethic and preparation. When the 49ers coach watched tape of McKinnon, he told Wagoner he could tell McKinnon had complete knowledge of the Vikings playbook by his full understanding of the "route tree," which indicated he knew the pass routes of all players, not just running backs. Shanahan also saw McKinnon was a ferocious blocker in pass protection, and that he had put in the time in the weight room to get very strong, as evidenced by his 32 repetitions with 225 pounds on the bench press at the NFL combine, a record for running backs.
Shanahan also told Wagner that he and GM John Lynch had done their homework, talking to people who knew McKinnon to get a feel for his character as well as his talent.
After getting the likes of McKinnon, center Weston Richburg and cornerback Richard Sherman in free agency, Shanahan told Wagner he believes the 49ers have brought in athletes who rank high in character as well as talent.
Said Shanahan: "I feel extremely confident that we got the right type of people."