The Minnesota Vikings made their most surprising selection at the end of the third round in Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon.
McKinnon was drafted before other talented backs including Devonta Freeman, Dri Archer, Ka’Deem Carey, and Lache Seastrunk. Those players Minnesota passed up on and the expected landing spot of McKinnon generated the surprise.
The uncommon athleticism of Jerick McKinnon seems to be the sole reasoning for the selection, at least from what Rick Spielman was quoted as saying post-draft: “He had one of the most interesting workouts I’ve ever seen in the Spring…they worked him out as a running back, as a punt returner, and a defensive corner. He was just from an athletic standpoint too good to pass up, too explosive of a player.”
McKinnon’s role as a wishbone quarterback for Georgia Southern (with cameos as a running back of sorts) makes him more of a mystery than Spielman lets on. He was certainly productive on the ground, totaling 3899 yards on 6.3 yards per carry and 42 touchdowns during his college career.
Statistical totals mean less from a system so unique. So without further ado, let’s get to the meat of Jerick McKinnon as a running back and how he fits with Minnesota.
A basic understanding of what McKinnon was asked to do in Georgia Southern’s offense is necessary to evaluate his play. The system changes everything about what a ball carrier is reading, where he will run to, and even the style with which the back will run. Whether McKinnon was quarterbacking his offense or playing from the actual backfield, there are certain features to the offense that affected the way he played.
The most notable is that the reads and reactions are wholly cut and dry. On a basic triple option play, as opposed to a variation of the base plays (also called constraint plays, built in to keep the defense honest), the quarterback has multiple “if this, then that” scenarios that can lead to an inside handoff to the fullback, a quarterback keep, or a toss to the outside. Everything is drilled to become completely instinctive, with little creativity need.
More specific effects of the offense on McKinnon will be sprinkled in as we go through his traits. This play (and countless others like it) gives an example of what a bread and butter play of the triple option offense looks like.
Everything is quick-hitting. The offense is built to find the hole in the defense and attack it without hesitation. That can lead to some huge running lanes like this one that inflate stats like McKinnon’s. Sidenote: Don’t mind that McKinnon gets run down in the open field here; he’s playing on a bad ankle.
Unique scheme or not, Jerick McKinnon’s athleticism is obvious. His combine numbers confirm what the tape shows. He’s an explosive back with a strong build, quick feet, and speed to burn.
The numbers themselves are remarkable from a holistic view. Mockdraftable.com provides spider graphs with each measurable category, showing the player’s percentiles compared to prospects of the same position. McKinnon’s percentiles are outrageous.
His size numbers are on the small end of course. It should be noted that his weight hits higher than his height, which indicates more bulk than most backs of his height.
All of his athletic measurements hit the 80th percentile or higher for running backs, which is noteworthy. Four of those hit the 95th percentile or higher. The pure explosion that comes from his legs is evident by 40.5-inch vertical, 132-inch broad jump and 1.46 ten-yard split.
The juice from his lower body shows up on the field as well. One of his best traits is how quickly he accelerates to top speed. When space opens up, McKinnon explodes through it.
This acceleration and subsequent top speed asks a lot of defenders. Linebackers are nowhere to be found as their window to make the play shrinks. Notice the initial angle of the safety, now Redskins safety Bacarri Rambo. His angle of pursuit is too aggressive, so McKinnon rounds him and picks up an extra ten yards. That’s not just poor safety play. McKinnon creates those yards with his burst and speed.
The Georgia Southern offense often created big holes for him to run through and he took full advantage.
Again, the acceleration makes it happen. Notice how quickly he gets from the 25 yard line to the 20 yard line after he turns up the field. Because he can reach top speed in a flash and then outrun defenders at top speed, he beats pursuit angles regularly.
Pressing questions pop up when McKinnon is left to make quicker decisions as a runner. There are features of the offense to consider though. The offensive scheme clouds the evaluation of any pro prospect in it. At running back, the reads and decision-making process are entirely different.
Analyzing the decision-making of the back through the lens of the triple-option offense is the first step. Translating that to characteristics of vision in a more traditional offense is the next step, and it’s a tricky one.
McKinnon was not a great decision-maker as the quarterback in his college offense. Sure, he was still the straw that stirred the drink, but he was often using a toothpick.
This first example is on the egregious side. Once McKinnon pulls the ball from the gut of the fullback, he finds his lead block and the outside linebacker. The patience to let his block develop isn’t there though. McKinnon cuts upfield too quickly, running right into the inside pursuit. He should have attacked the defense first, let them show their hand, and then made his decision.
The next example is a positive one for McKinnon for a few different reasons.
There are a couple different ways to look at this play. From a yardage maximization in the offensive scheme standpoint, he made the right decision. The cornerback has pitch back responsibility as evidenced by his direct route to the perimeter. There’s a force safety pursuing past the outside shoulder of the outside linebacker. If McKinnon keeps to the outside of his lead block, the defense has it covered 2 v. 2.
When trying to translate this play to an NFL standpoint, McKinnon’s quick reactions to the pursuit is promising. Everything I’ve seen from McKinnon tells me that he didn’t trust the pitch to his running back after he broke the tackle box. That affected his decision-making. How defenders are aligned is different against this scheme too. Obviously he’ll be a lone ball carrier in the NFL, which will simplify his decisions in the open field. From that perspective, this is a sharp cut up the field with perfect timing to find a running lane.
Overall, his vision is still concerning. He made too many questionable decisions as the quarterback for Georgia Southern and didn’t always instinctively run to space. Experience is also an issue. McKinnon will have a whole different (and new) process of reading running lanes as an NFL back.
If the vision and decision-making aspects of his game come around, look out. His feet are prepared to make incredibly sharp cuts. With the power that is the ability to cut on a dime, comes responsibility.
A lot of backs get themselves into trouble by cutting too much, slowing their momentum to a crawl and not getting anywhere. McKinnon does that here. The pair of hops and stopping of the feet won’t be anywhere near as effective in the NFL, where pursuit gets home twice as fast.
When he’s more decisive with his cuts, McKinnon can go from east-west to north-south in an instant.
He makes almost a 90-degree turn when he comes to the 35-yard line. This cut is the driving force behind his value as a runner on the perimeter. McKinnon stretches the defense horizontally and then puts his foot in the ground and turns up the field when the hole opens for him.
As a side note, notice how McKinnon finishes this run after breaking into the open field. He turns back into traffic instead of running to space, which goes back to a few previous points.
The cuts McKinnon enjoyed the most success employing were those back against the pursuit of the defense. Obviously the structure of the offense has a lot to do with it, as he was almost always running outside and then up rather than upfield and then to the outside.
McKinnon uses a jump cut to avoid his blocker on the ground and find the running lane against the grain. Once he’s through the hole, pursuit angles are toast.
The skillfulness of McKinnon’s feet can’t be fully understood without seeing this gem.
It’s an example of incredibly body control, flexibility, and explosion. Lateral cuts like this can be used to find adjacent running lanes and set up second level defenders to be blocked.
There was one question I grappled with the most as it relates to McKinnon. Is he an elusive and creative runner? It’s important for him to be both of those things, even more so than your average back, considering his size and projected usage.
Elusiveness is the first aspect we’ll examine. McKinnon certainly has the physical traits to be an elusive back. The tape tells a story of inconsistency.
McKinnon has a linebacker singled up in space but chops his feet and gets cut down. Indecision is part of the problem, with McKinnon slowing his momentum before he reaches the tackler.
Isolated incidents like this one can be correlated directly to elusiveness at the NFL level. How often McKinnon slips tacklers is another thing. He would go whole games without really breaking tackles or evading tacklers with quickness. A lot of that is related to the scheme.
Offenses centered around the triple option often restrict ball carriers from being overly creative runners. The goal is to quickly identify the defense’s weak spot on any given play and hit it as fast as possible. None of these offenses want to end up in third and long situations, so backs are taught to get what they can while finishing runs strongly.
All of that clouds the evaluation of McKinnon’s elusiveness. Most of time he was doing what the offense asked for, getting north and south and fighting for every yard to finish runs instead of trying to make defenders miss.
McKinnon provided flashes of brilliance though. Once he got past the structure of the play, he made special things happen.
Both big gains come from elusiveness once McKinnon gets outside the play structure. Evidence that indicates he is an elusive back who was limited by an offensive scheme certainly exists. His traits are in that favor as well. He runs with a low center of gravity, power in his legs and balance in and out of cuts.
He still needs to be a more creative, yet more efficient runner. Those traits aren’t mutually exclusive when the back isn’t finding space to run into, especially when that space is there for the taking.
I have one final qualm with McKinnon in terms of his running skills. He has a detrimental tendency to run with too much forward lean.
He doesn’t have enough balance to bounce off the tackle attempt here. He’s almost falling over by the time the defender arrives.
This time he literally does fall down before the tackle comes in. Maybe the 40-yard line paint was just laid on too thick but probably not.
The offense should be considered here as well. From a quarterback position, McKinnon has to run with some forward lean to help build up speed after taking a first step backward at the snap. Most ball carriers get to build up speed before they ever receive the ball. Balance is still an issue, just one that has multiple factors and looks correctable.
A 15,000-pound elephant still sits in the room. What does Jerick McKinnon provide in passing situations?
Tape isn’t about to reveal the answer. Georgia Southern rarely threw the ball and when they did, McKinnon was usually the quarterback. He has very little experience running routes, catching passes, or making pass blocks.
A few nuggets can be mined from pre-draft activities including the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. None of it should be used to come to final conclusions though. The sample size is tiny and comes from unique settings.
These are four consecutive (consecutive for McKinnon) reps in 1 v. 1 pass protection drills at the Senior Bowl.
McKinnon shows improvement through each consecutive rep until the fourth one. That’s going to be the most important thing for him as it relates to pass blocking for the Vikings. McKinnon needs to be able to take to his coaching and learn it from the bottom up. The slate is bare right now.
The small sample of pass catching is more promising.
The best thing is that McKinnon’s technique catching the football is spot on. The first gif is a combine drill meant to get receivers out of their comfort zones and bring out the bad habits. McKinnon showed none.
All of this, both the receiving and blocking, is a fuzzy proposition. The truth won’t be known until he gets more reps to evaluate.
The scary thing with McKinnon in the end is that there are more questions than answers. So much of his value in passing situations is unknown. His fit as a runner in a pro-style rushing attack also takes a lot of projection.
Jerick McKinnon is exactly what he seems like on the surface. His athletic potential could make him a game-changing talent in the NFL. He plays a position where athletic ability and success have a more direct correlation than other positions. At the same time, he has a lot to learn. If he doesn’t learn from his coaching and tweak some bad habits, he will flop.
With the departure of Toby Gerhart, bringing in another running back seemed a formality long ago. Jerick McKinnon will be groomed as the spell back to Adrian Peterson and will be involved on passing downs heavily, especially right away.
How much he actually sees the field while Adrian Peterson is still the man is going to be a big talking point. Even when Gerhart was playing well, a limited snap count meant a limited effect.
Fully comparable situations aren’t easy to find from Norv Turner’s past. 2007 and 2008 are two seasons closest to this situation for him, with Ladainian Tomlinson still in his prime years. Tomlinson played 80% of running back snaps right on the button in each of those two seasons. The leftover 20% went to Darren Sproles in 2008 and was split by Darren Sproles and Michael Turner in 2007.
The first caveat to consider as it relates to McKinnon’s snap count is pass blocking, which is often viewed as a threshold skill. That means if a back can’t do it, he can’t be on the field.
Norv Turner’s scheme won’t ask tight ends to aid in pass protection as often as Bill Musgrave’s scheme did. The back may have increased pass-blocking responsibilities. Here are two examples of baseline blocks that McKinnon will have to prove he can execute.
With Teddy Bridgewater a mainstay at the quarterback position (fingers crossed), the pass-blocking dynamic changes a bit. He’s a quarterback who feels the rush well, anticipates receivers coming open and releases quickly. Norv Turner could afford to be braver with protection schemes and release his backs into routes more often.
Turner is already inclined to utilize his backs in the passing game quite heavily. Past statistics indicate that. Dating back to 1991, Turner has held three head coaching roles (Redskins, Raiders, Chargers) and four offensive coordinator roles (Cowboys, Chargers, Dolphins, Browns).
11 of his backs posted at least one season with 50 receptions, those being Emmitt Smith (twice), Darryl Johnston, Ricky Ervins, Larry Centers (twice), Ladainian Tomlinson (three times), Ricky Williams, LaMont Jordan, Frank Gore, Darren Sproles, Ryan Mathews, and Mike Tolbert.
The NFL only had 216 backs haul in 50 catches in a season during that time frame. 711 individual teams took the field over that stretch, which means 30% of teams had a back hit that milestone, though a small number would have had multiple backs do it in a season. Counting the doubles separate, 65% of Norv Turner led offenses had a back hit that mark as a pass catcher. Turner had two seasons with two backs that each caught more than fifty passes.
There’s one other telling way to interpret the data. An average of 30.9 teams took the field each year over those 23 seasons. 216 outcomes divided out to those 30.9 teams means each should have 7 outcomes over the time frame. Norv Turner more than doubled that with 15. Simply put, his running backs will catch the football.
Screen passes are an obvious way to accomplish that. Here are a couple examples of what they might look like.
The screen pass will always feature in Norv Turner’s offense, one that stresses downfield passing and doesn’t keep max protection often. Screens take advantage of heavy blitz packages and can make down linemen delay the rush, if only for a half second, on future passing downs.
This is an easy way to get Jerick McKinnon the ball out in space with blockers ahead of him. As raw as he is, he should be able to step onto the field and catch a screen pass right away.
McKinnon will also be expected to catch check-down passes regularly.
Teddy Bridgewater checks the ball down to his back quite regularly, so whoever plays next to him in the backfield must be able to run a simple route out of the backfield and catch the football.
All in all, the biggest part of Jerick McKinnon’s role will come on passing downs. That’s his quickest route to playing time and his most realistic route to contributions until Adrian Peterson’s time comes to an end in Minnesota.
What kind of carry totals can McKinnon expect in the meantime? Let’s go back to Tomlinson’s prime years under Turner, 2007 and 2008. In 2007, Michael Turner got 4.4 carries per game and Darren Sproles got 2.3 carries per game. Sproles then carried is 3.8 times per game in 2008. Somewhere around four seems like the sweet spot but maybe less initially.
To maximize McKinnon’s impact early on, spreading the field and letting him hit defenses between the tackles makes sense. This would happen from shotgun formations most likely.
There are big holes to be run through when these interior run plays are blocked appropriately. John Sullivan and Brandon Fusco can move people on the inside as well. Browns back Willis McGahee isn’t patient and aware enough to find the truck-sized hole on this play, which shows that vision and reading blocks is still crucial.
No matter the play design, McKinnon will have adjustments to make. On the above play, he would follow a pulling guard, which he has never done since probably high school. Following a fullback will also be a relatively new, and the Vikings will find a way to use their fullback Jerome Felton.
Reads off the fullback’s block are hardly ever as straight-forward as this play shows, but you get the idea. If things go according to plan up front, the ball carrier reads the positioning of his lead block on the defender and makes his cut. It’s another aspect of running back play that McKinnon will learn in the NFL.
One last way the Vikings could look to implement McKinnon in a way that he’s prepared for is to get him on the edge.
When the lead blocks get the corner sealed as is the case here, McKinnon has the burst to turn the corner and speed to get a big gain around the corner. If the contain defender does his job, McKinnon can quickly make a cut up the field and fight for yardage going north and south.
Jerick McKinnon may be the heir apparent to Adrian Peterson. The Vikings front office probably hasn’t actually thought that far ahead as it relates to their selection of McKinnon. Until that happens, his job will consist of passing game contributions.
He has a long ways to go no matter what lens you look at it through. Early impact will be a huge testament to the Vikings coaching staff because his transition is a steep one. Incorrect usage of him will also result in a short career, because he’s not a do-it-all back.
I am cautiously excited about his athleticism and what that means for his NFL future. His landing spot also elevates his projection due to Norv Turner’s past work with running backs. This is still a risk and we’re going to find out a lot about how this new coaching staff develops talent. The previous coaching staff didn’t do that.
Gifs courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com and NFL Game Rewind.