With the addition of Ben Tate and the news that Adrian Peterson won’t play for the year, we might as well take a look at the player that has Vikings fans excited if a little anxious. The Vikings have added Ben Tate in part because of injuries to the current running back corps, but also may be evaluating him for a timeshare role with the Vikings in the near future. With that in in mind, is Jerick the kind of back that can thrive in a feature role, or is he more a running-back-by-committee type? If he’s more than a change of pace, then he can be a real asset.
Before the draft, Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon wasn’t on a lot of people’s radar, with scant scouting reports available on what would amount to a position convert—a difficult report to write even in the most favorable of circumstances. Functionally, the bulk of what we were told amounted to “a physically talented but raw prospect at the running back position”—true but a little incomplete from necessity.
Here at Vikings Territory, we tried our best to get a good report on McKinnon, and Carl Knowles did a good job breaking him down in the immediate aftermath of the draft. After that, Darren Page did a hell of a job creating an effective scouting report on McKinnon. Matt Waldman wrote about McKinnon in his Rookie Scouting Portfolio with the following blurb (and then some):
McKinnon has more upside than his ranking suggests because he’s a fantastic athlete who has played multiple positions, including quarterback, defensive back, and running back. However, the limited tape of McKinnon as a runner—and non-existent game tape at Georgia Southern of him as an I-formation back clouds the decision-making process.
I see evidence that McKinnon can become a good NFL running back, but he’ll need to show that he can use his physical gifts with a deeper start from the line of scrimmage. It should give him an advantage, but it all depends on how he reads blocks.
Waldman followed up with a larger piece on McKinnon during the offseason, where he includes his full RSP assessment. All of those provide good context for who McKinnon was and they remain largely true, but we know more now and can really dig into him. As a warning, this will be heavy with GIFs and may load slowly on a lot of computers.
One thing Jerick McKinnon never seems to get much credit for is the power he runs with. It’s bothered me how many people have discredited this quality of his, and how often they do it. For running backs, power is generated through leverage, drive and leg strength. That’s not to say upper body strength doesn’t matter, but that generally adds to the package; running backs with “skinny knees” (as it were) can’t do much no matter what they bench.
Luckily for McKinnon, he has the raw tools—the lower and upper body strength—to play with fantastic power. Remember, the reason that McKinnon had an incredible combine is not just because of his speed or agility (which we’ll discuss), but because of his unreal power. The combine scores that best measure his leg drive are among the best at his position—ranking in the 98th percentile of all running backs in broad jump and in the 95th in vertical leap.
Since 1999, there have been 270 running backs that have gone through the combine, and only five other backs have achieved those marks. New York Giants frustration David Wilson and Washington Redskins disappointment Lache Seastrunk, as well as three backs no longer in the league: Jerry Azumah, Jay Hinton and Curtis Keaton.
He also has the single-highest bench press score of any halfback to go through the combine, with 32 reps. I’ll let Rotoworld take it away on that:
No other running back has an athletic profile similar (i.e., over 80) to that of Jerick McKinnon. Backs with McKinnon’s speed, lower-body explosiveness and upper-body strength just don’t exist. He’s truly unique.
He’s also a freak. An average NFL skill position player will ring in at around a 110 pSPARQ, a good athlete at 120, and very good at 130. Elite is about 140, and the 150+ range is reserved for Calvin Johnson, Vernon Davis, and a select few others. McKinnon’s 147.5 is one of the top scores among all running backs over the last 16 years.
But those scores you may have already heard about, to the point where they aren’t interesting. Better is the fact that McKinnon runs with power. He doesn’t just have the tools, he knows how to use it. More important than leg strength are drive and leverage. Stepping into tackles and running through carriers takes more than built-up speed, it takes consistent persistent effort to gain additional yards.
That means driving through with legs, stepping forward after contact and continuing to pump additional yards by churning. Given the open (and deceptive) nature of the Georgia Southern offense, there wasn’t a lot of available tape of him hitting a crowd of people and doing that, but it was there. Here in the Vikings offense it’s much more common, and he’s showing that skill.
Though not every GIF showcases ideal leverage, it’s often very good. In fact, he’s correcting for an issue he had at Georgia Southern—he ran too low, too often, and it hurt his balance. For the most part, he’s shown great leverage at the point of attack.
He’s far too different when he runs outside versus inside. He’s sometimes too willing to hesitate in order to find a lane instead of run through contact when there isn’t a choice. This is interesting, because in the open field, he sometimes displays a different tendency.
Regardless, it’s clear that McKinnon runs with power and drive. There’s not much issues with his leverage and in power situations he should be fine to gain extra yards where there aren’t any. Concerns about his size (209 pounds) are overblown. Not all power backs are 220+ pounds, and McKinnon is one of them. When adjusting for size, he has the 15th-best vertical leap and the 5th-best broad jump. For his size, he can really move, and has some of the best power at his position.
If we assume that weight is its own attribute and add it to the vertical and broad jump scores, it’s the 11th-highest score among RBs, behind Brandon Jacobs, Andre Williams and of course Christine Michael—another combine superstar.
The biggest issue with McKinnon’s power is determining when to use it in nonobvious situations is a problem. That hesitation ruins his ability to generate power and despite his quick burst and acceleration, he would do much more if he ran through people. As good as Bashaud Breeland has been this year for Washington, McKinnon should run him over. But make no mistake, he has power. It’s the reason he was able to pull of the 29-yard run against the best running defense in the NFL, at the time the longest run Buffalo gave up all season.
He breaks a lot of tackles with his power, and occasionally it’s the kind of power you see from players like Marshawn Lynch—a player who combines power and balance to look slippery when really he’s just strong.
It’s a quality of his that should make him an every-down back, not just a passing-down option. Power situations like third and short are just fine for him. Even if they aren’t keeping him on a Matt Forte-like plan isn’t bad. TD vultures and goal line backs are cheap and easy to acquire. Even ones better than Asiata.
Supposed to be a work in progress, McKinnon had quite a few things going against him in terms of his vision as a running back and NFL prospect. Running out of the triple-option offense at Georgia Southern, he worked with an offense designed for misdirection with unusual angles and pitch options in place of following lead blocks and so on. It’s difficult to emphasize the importance of those differences, but Darren does a good job in his piece. I linked it above, and I’ll quote it below, but you really should read it for more detail on what he means, with specifics.
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.
To his credit, he’s improved massively. His ability to read blocks is well within what it needs to be in order to make the offense go. It’s not just that he can run through an assigned lane and figure out which side of the fullback to attack, it’s the whole set of first-level skills. He can be creative and patient at the line, allowing his blocks to develop, or he can push upfield quickly when a lane opens up. First, his patience:
Patience is something people continue to preach for running backs, but it’s not the only component of first-level vision. He needs to read as the play develops and determine which lanes are open not just by seeing where there’s green, but reading the helmet of those engaged with the offensive line and run to the opposite shoulder. He’s not amazing or consistent at it, but he does it far more often than you’d expect. Below, you’ll see him make a correct helmet read followed by an iffy one:
Determining where open lanes are is critical to a running back’s play and he does a good job of it more often than not. What’s even more important is mature decisionmaking when running lanes that seem obviously open aren’t.
He can also eat a broken play. Instead of creating negative yards by dancing behind the line looking for an open lane, he’ll get two or three yards from a blown up set of blocks. Below, McKinnon needs to make extremely quick decisions as his designated lane closes. He makes the right one, but as soon as he makes it, Ducasse loses his block in a big way and he has to plant, shift weight and move upfield to prevent a tackle for loss by a blown block. With a mind-boggling response time, he does it.
There are a few other aspects of first-level running, but for the most part he has the basics already covered to find open lanes. What’s even better is that he can read the second-level as well. It’s a skill that Adrian Peterson has to a T, even reading the third level from behind the line. McKinnon isn’t quite there, but reading the linebackers is something he can do pretty well to get additional yards. Even more impressive is that he can bait the linebackers with shoulder, torso and head fakes.
It takes more than just finding an open lane and running through it. Like you can see above, lanes aren’t always open… and sometimes they’re not entirely open. Backs often have to make a decision to hug one side of the lane in order to avoid pressure from opposing defenders, and it’s not something we see even from NFL backs.
He gets kind of weird about it sometimes, too though. At least three times this year he’s run between his blocker and the defender he’s blocking. It works out better than you’d expect, which isn’t to say it works. Generally speaking, he already has starting-caliber vision at the first and second level—and often even better than that.
His open field vision is sometimes appalling. That may be the most interesting product of who he is given that that is one of the few things that was something he genuinely did have a lot of experience with at Georgia Southern. Evaluations of the other aspects of running back vision are clouded by the fact that he didn’t work with traditional NFL blocks, but this particular aspect of vision is something he should be familiar with. Unfortunately, he had problems then, too.
His decisionmaking in the open field is not always on point, though we admittedly don’t have a lot of data in this regard. Sometimes the subtle markers of field vision are missing—like taking shallow angles in response to movement by linebackers, planting away from pressure and so on. But at least twice this year, he’s simply made the wrong decision in the open field, and I expect it to continue. The most egregious is this run in the Atlanta game, where he makes the wrong decision something like three times.
Which… I mean, it’s worth it.
McKinnon’s best physical asset isn’t his speed, agility or strength. It’s his balance, and it’s unreal. Balance is what allows him to combine all those assets together and break tackles. It gives him the ability to make speed cuts, jump cuts and all manner of running back moves. It allows running backs to do things like spin moves and stay up in extreme circumstances to get extra yards. We see it showcased most often in highlight reels, but it gives backs the recovery ability to turn two yards into three as well.
You can see it showcased in the GIFs throughout this piece, but the one immediately above may be the best example from this season. From his college season?
Beautiful. He can create unreal angles with the ground
This gives him more potential to engage in those kinds of running back moves than almost anyone else. This balance is what sets apart backs like LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson from other running backs with their size, movement ability and vision. For a while, players like Knile Davis, Ronnie Brown and Cedric Peerman can do very well (and often do for a sustained period of time), but there’s a reason they cannot reach the heights of equally physically capable backs. Sometimes it’s vision, sometimes it’s balance and sometimes it’s both.
He’s fast. We all know this. And what’s great is that he has functional on-field speed to go with his high test scores. That’s never been an issue, but he did have a problem earlier in the season pushing upfield and figuring out when to turn on the jets and when to stay patient. He’s done a better job of that as the season as gone on, and his ability to accelerate matches his incredible long speed. When he accelerates, it’s something special.
This is the sort of quality that makes one-cut runners excellent in zone blocking schemes. It relies not just on simple acceleration or burst, but one-plant change of direction. But McKinnon does more than that, which is why he fits multiple schemes. He has fast feet (important because running like a track star with long strides creates massive change-of-direction problems) and can run from a standstill. His stop-start is great and it’s a big part why the Vikings drafted him.
I don’t need to write much here. He’s one of the fastest players on the field. He can get run down by the Josh Robinsons of the world, but not by many others. He has short speed, long speed and the ability to stop. He’s getting better at using it and when to stay patient.
The vast majority of his routes are angle routes or simple three-yard checkdowns. He occasionally runs flare routes to the edge or shoot routes into the flat, but the Vikings seem to like him in the middle of the field right now. His route tree is naturally not developed even for a running back, but he’s able to run the limited routes he does and I fully expect his tree to expand with time.
As a route-runner, he’s been surprising. Though he doesn’t have much experience running any routes at all, much less ones with breaks, he has a lot of route-running capability. He’s incorporated head fakes, shoulder fakes and other kinds of deception, and he already has advanced release technique in-route despite never really having to get off the line of scrimmage as a receiver. He sinks his hips and uses proper plant technique.
There’s a significant difference between having the explosive capability to get out of breaks and having the right technique to get into the route, and it’s one of the reasons why Patterson isn’t getting open as often as he needs to be despite his short-area quickness. From his limited sample, so far it looks like McKinnon has the ability to incorporate that kind of technique. He has the ability to deceive in route, which is tough for running backs and shocking for a quarterback convert that didn’t really do it in college. I’m not sure where he got it, but it’s an astounding feature for him to have. Below is one of those instances, and with it he flew open against DeAndre Levy, Pro Football Focus’ third-best coverage linebacker.
You’ll notice he didn’t catch it. He has good hands technique most of the time, but it doesn’t quite work. He doesn’t cradle the ball through the catch, but he also has extraordinarily tiny hands. While I tend to dismiss hand size in a lot of cases (it’s overblown a lot), the extremes raise eyebrows and his are the smallest in the draft class. Still, he brings his hands together, attacks the ball and sees the ball into his hands. It’s good stuff and relatively advanced for someone with his experience.
That said, his route adjustments have been a little rough and he still has a very high drop rate. Something that doesn’t get caught in drop rates is incompletions he causes with incorrect route adjustments. Below, he slows up and causes an incompletion when he shouldn’t have.
At other times, his ability to read the defense has been very good and he’s sat in the holes of zones or option away from man coverage in order to create space and enable the passing game. It’s still something he’s working on, but it’s not as if he’s completely behind the eight-ball here.
But the reason he’s such an exciting receiving option wasn’t supposed to be advanced route-running skills or the kind of reliability that Danny Woodhead or Jacquizz Rodgers provides in the hands department. It’s his explosiveness and yards after the catch. YAC isn’t just about the ability to start from a standstill or vision, although both of those are critical.
It means feeling out where defenders are before the catch happens without losing focus on the ball and acting on those instincts. It needs to have a quick turnaround time (as a contrast, Asiata takes ages to spin after catching the ball when facing the QB), instant decisionmaking and great instincts for space. He certainly has all of that.
Next year, don’t be surprised him to line up on the line and run receiver routes even with the problems he’s displayed. We still need to see more of his footwork in those situations to really be confident about it, but he knows what to do with his hands and shoulders in order to get free of defenders.
Well, there’s not much to say here. He’s bad at it. He’s great at blitz pickup and diagnosis (something I thought would be an issue for him, but in retrospect makes sense—QBs, even in option offenses, need to read linebackers shooting through gaps), and generally speaking can figure out who to block and when. That’s not his issue.
He doesn’t always keep his feet set when meeting a blocker and though he attempts to drive through the block can be behind when it comes to leverage and momentum as a result. He’s not quite patient at times and at other times doesn’t attack low enough to drive with the power we know he has. Sometimes he can give a guy nosebleeds with how well he beats up a guy 50 pounds heavier than him, but other times, he has difficulty slowing them down.
That difficult can come from improper blocking angles, poor footwork, and occasionally passive blocking. At other times he has all of these things in order, and it just so happens that a lot of Teddy’s more impressive plays happen at a time when McKinnon clowns a rusher. He’s certainly willing, though. My favorite McKinnon block isn’t one he has in pass protection but one that enabled Patterson to get some extra yards as a pass-catcher.
He’s certainly willing. If McKinnon can be that effective on a regular basis while protecting Bridgewater, he’ll truly be a complete back.