Niners Already Love Jerick McKinnon as a Receiver

In OTAs this week, new No. 1 running back is becoming a favorite target of Jimmy Garoppolo and offering a glimpse of his versatility

The 49ers plan to get their money’s worth this season out of Jerick McKinnon.

The 26-year-old running back, who spent his first four pro seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, is expected to be the team’s leading ball carrier in 2018. He could also be the team’s leading receiver.

As Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee noted this week in covering the 49ers’ organized team activities (OTAs) in Santa Clara, McKinnon has been one of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite targets in scrimmages, exploiting his speed in mismatches with linebackers.

McKinnon’s ability as a receiver is one of the things head coach Kyle Shanahan loves about him. Last season in Minnesota, McKinnon had 51 catches for 421 yards and two touchdowns. The previous season he had 43 catches for 255 yards and two scores. All those numbers could rise in 2018. As Barrows noted, McKinnon looks much more comfortable as a receiver than last year’s No. 1 back, Carlos Hyde, and Garoppolo excels in accuracy on short routes, with his ability to hit targets in stride.

Niners general manager John Lynch said recently that the 5-foot-9 McKinnon’s speed and ability as a pass catcher – combined with the speed of Matt Breida and Joe Williams – could give the team a versatility and quickness the offense hasn’t had in a long time. It will start with McKinnon, Lynch said.

“Even though he’s smaller in stature, the one thing that we grew comfortable with is that he plays bigger than that,” Lynch said on the NFL Network recently. “He’s a real strong back. While his stature is not the biggest guy in the world, he plays big. And the one thing that’s undeniable, he can roll. He’s fast.

“It’s fun to look at our halfback room and I think the slowest guy out of the five we have right now runs a 4.49 (40-yard dash). These guys can all fly. Jerick is one of those guys. Not only can he fly, he’s a matchup nightmare. He can run these choice routes where, ‘OK, you want to guard me on the inside? We’ll go out. You want to guard me on the outside? We’ll go in.’

“I think Kyle will do a tremendous job of exploiting him on linebackers and such. We’re really excited to see Jerick as part of our offense.”

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