The Development of Jerick McKinnon

When the Vikings selected Jerick McKinnon in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL draft, I don’t think there were many fans who knew what kind of player they were getting in a former quarterback from Georgia Southern.

Word of McKinnon’s speed and athletic ability quickly spread, as did comparisons to Darren Sproles, a former component of Norv Turner’s offense when in San Diego.

There is little doubt the Vikings saw tremendous potential in McKinnon when selecting him 96th overall, choosing to select a little known running back over filling other positions on a team full of needs.

Going into the draft, McKinnon was thought to have excellent speed coupled with tremendous strength and versatility. However, everyone assumed the Vikings drafted McKinnon because of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, a skillset often heavily used in Turner’s offense. With only 10 receptions in college, though, McKinnon’s ability to be a receiving threat is still relatively unknown.

Let’s take a look at what we do know about McKinnon thus far. First of all, there is little doubt about his speed. The nickname ‘The Jet’ seems to serve him well, as he can move vertically quickly and seemingly effortlessly.

When in Mankato covering a handful of early training camp practices, I noted that McKinnon runs with a noticeable lean. This assertiveness is a great trait of a rookie running back, as long as he realizes when to pick his battles. Keeping his pads low will be crucial for McKinnon to stay healthy, running upright is just asking for injuries.

You can’t help but come away impressed with McKinnon after watching him in practice. The true eye test, if you will, obviously comes during games when the 208lb McKinnon navigates around bigger defensive players.

Becoming a patient runner as a rookie is not an easy task. Even after all the success Adrian Peterson had in his first 2-3 years in the league, Peterson himself consistently commented on his work to become more patient.

McKinnon is not unlike any other rookie running back. He too is trying to develop the patience to let his blocks play out before panicking and breaking the play. Until players get fully acclimated with the speed of the NFL, they will often look to beat the defense to the sideline and move up field from there.

Below, you can see how McKinnon got antsy waiting for his blocks to develop and abandoned the run to the right side with his lead blocker Jerome Felton and tried to bounce the run back to left sideline. The defense was quick to meet him just beyond the line of scrimmage.

On the other side of the spectrum, McKinnon has looked overly hesitant at times as well. I think this is a result of a constant internal battle where McKinnon is still learning when to make a cut up field vs being a patient runner.

McKinnon saw very limited opportunity in the 2nd week of the preseason against Arizona, tallying just 1 carry for a loss of 3 yards and 1 reception for 1 yard. With the Vikings giving plenty of time to their backup running backs, the fact McKinnon received so few opportunities was confusing if nothing else.

McKinnon seemed to have his feet under him this past Saturday against Kansas City, picking up 43 yards on 6 carries. Production aside, it was obvious McKinnon seemed more comfortable and patient when running the ball on Saturday. He seemed more decisive with the holes his hit and seemed much less hesitant than weeks previous.

McKinnon seems to be getting a better handle on the timing of running plays, as well. Norv Turners offense will call for a lot of runs to the outside. When designed with proper blocking, these plays will be a great fit for McKinnon because of his speed. As mentioned above, it is important for McKinnon to let his offensive linemen get in front of him before turning up field.

McKinnon does an excellent job doing this on the run to the right side. The counter step at the beginning of the play not only throws the defense off, but gives left guard Charlie Johnson enough time to pull to the right side to seal off the defensive line. From there, McKinnon uses his speed and quick cuts to slice through the Kansas City defense.

The less glamorous part of the development of a rookie running back is their willingness and ability to block. If McKinnon is to be used as a pass catching threat on long yardage downs, there is a strong likelihood that he will be asked stay back in pass protection at times as well.

When watching drills in Mankato, blocking didn’t seem to be McKinnon’s strong suit. There were times where he would simply be manhandled because of pure size difference. I think this can be solved through improvement of technique, but it will take some time.

Below we can see how McKinnon hangs in to block in a passing situation. Ultimately, McKinnon’s blitz pick up works in the sense the defender doesn’t get to the quarterback, but McKinnon losses his footing. In a perfect world, McKinnon stays upright and doesn’t become a speed bump for the defender to run over.

I do think McKinnon’s blocking will improve with time, but it will only happen if he gets more opportunity to block in similar situations. I reviewed a lot of tape from the first 3 preseason games, and McKinnon has easily spent more time running routes out of the backfield than staying in to help block.

It is very early in what we hope is a long career in purple and gold for McKinnon, but I find promise in the progress he has made thus far. If McKinnon can continue to develop patience when running while not being overly hesitant, he will have an opportunity to rack up nice yardage for the Vikings while giving All-Pro counterpart, Adrian Peterson a breather.