image courtesy of Tom Moore

It’s no real surprise that a triple-option quarterback from Georgia Southern has been overshadowed in his first two seasons in the NFL by future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson. Last season, Jerick McKinnon was limited to just 73 touches for the Minnesota Vikings as Peterson went on to win his third career rushing title while toting the rock a league leading 327 times. Peterson is ninth all-time in rushing touchdowns (97) and 17th all-time in rushing yards (11,675) and his quest to climb the NFL leader board could fleece more snaps away from McKinnon again this season.

It’s true McKinnon’s opportunities were slighted in 2015, yet the 5’9” 205 pound speedster was anything but lost in the shadows of an icon. A lack of playing time hasn’t stopped McKinnon from flashing his unbelievable athletic ability. For a smaller running back known for his breakaway speed, McKinnon has shown some surprising power as well. He is recognized as a freak in the weight room who can bench press twice his weight and squat three times his weight. His incredible work ethic is beginning to translating to the gridiron as he continues to develop strength as a pass blocker and improved power as a runner.

ESPN’s Ben Goessling highlights how hard Peterson still trains at age 31, and McKinnon has certainly benefited from seeing those disciplines first hand. As the understudy, McKinnon is learning all he can and taking advantage of every snap he gets. The admiration and respect the two have for each other continues to heighten along the way.

“I said here last weekend in front of you guys that he’s probably one of the most talented players on the team, if not the most talented.” Peterson said. “I have a lot of respect for him: he’s eager to learn and he’s always asking questions. He’s impressive. So when he’s out there I feel comfortable with knowing that he can get the job done.”

Being confined to a modest role behind one of the greatest backs of this generation hasn’t diminished McKinnon’s development as a NFL running back. On the contrary, his apprenticeship under Peterson is ahead of schedule, and “Jet” as he is affectionately known, appears ready to take on a larger role in 2016.

In the final three weeks of the regular season, Vikings fans got a good glimpse of what McKinnon’s role might look like in 2016. In those final contests, McKinnon averaged 77 total yards per game and found the end zone three times. The first 13 games of the season, he only touched the ball an average of 3.53 times per game. As the Vikings made their late season run to capture the NFC North title, they also found new ways to incorporate McKinnon’s versatility as they fed him the ball an average of nine times per game.

The Vikings 38-17 win against the Chicago Bears in week fifteen saw Teddy Bridgewater complete 85% of his attempts (a season high) as he connected with McKinnon four times for a team high 76 yards and a touchdown. McKinnon’s playmaking ability as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and also from the slot position helped Bridgewater establish an early rhythm and tone for the game.

The following week in a 49-17 win against the Giants, McKinnon ran the ball seven times for 89 yards and capped off his first multiple-score game of his NFL career. His 68 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter is evidence of his improved patience, vision, outstanding lateral quickness, not to mention his game-breaking speed.

McKinnon headlines my list of 2016 breakout candidates and I wouldn’t be surprised if he leads the team in receptions in more than one game while also having more than one multiple touchdown performance.

Former tight ends coach and newly appointed running backs coach Kevin Stefanski thinks McKinnon is a special player.

“There is so much that he can do, and I think we are still figuring out exactly what he can do,” said Stefanski. “It’s up to us to put him in position so that he can help us, and I think we are figuring that out.”

Playing second fiddle to Peterson on the depth chart is not the ideal situation for McKinnon. Don’t count on him to set the fantasy world on fire with monster all-purpose yardage, but McKinnon will continue to do what is asked of him and make the most of his opportunity in Minnesota. His personality, hard work, and electric playmaking appeal has already captivated a Vikings’ fan base.

Tom Moore of caught up with McKinnon after the training camp night practice and asked him what it’s like to play behind a living legend like Adrian Peterson.

“It’s Amazing man,” McKinnon said. “Being able to see him day in and day out do the things he does. He is humble and seems to be hungry. At the age that he is, it’s amazing. He has an incredible work ethic that I’ve learned from him. He is personable to everybody, practicing the right way, finishing runs, picking up blitzes, reading coverages, things like. It’s a daily thing learning from him.”

It’s hard not to root for McKinnon. The “Free McKinnon” support is growing and I too hope this coaching staff can figure out ways to get “Jet” on the field more consistently.