The Shanahan Workhorse.
Any fantasy football wolf’s mouth begins to water at the mere mention of those words. Start throwing out the appropriate “Zone Blocking Scheme” and “Heavy Target Share” follow-ups, and I hope I’m not wearing sweatpants in public.
You see, I’ve long been a Shanahan Backfield Truther. Since Mike Shanahan‘s days with Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis, my dreams have been haunted with one-cut-and-go backs knifing through defenses, as if a hot knife through butter.
And while I’ve been burned by “Shanahan-igans” once or twice, this is a fantasy bet I’ve rarely regretted hammering. Time and time again, Mike and now his son Kyle Shanahan have churned out fantasy monsters. Most recently, an “ill-fitting” Carlos Hyde joined the RB1 Ranks alongside Devonta Freeman, Alfred Morris, and even Steve Slaton. The track record’s impossible, and foolish, to ignore.
And according to his mouth (and the 49ers wallet), Shanahan has found his ideal next horse: Jerick McKinnon.
Last Wednesday, McKinnon became the league’s fourth richest back thanks to a monster 4-year, $30 million deal. He also became, by far, the biggest “Fantasy Winner” from a hectic 2018 NFL Free Agency period. He soars from an afterthought handcuff to carrying legitimate RB1 upside, and belongs in any smart owners Round 2 plans.
Here’s why I will be going all-in on McKinnon in 2018, and you should be too:
Kyle and his father Mike have become infamous for their “Zone Blocking Scheme.” Though many other teams have featured zone-running principles, no one has taught or executed at the Shanahan Level. The family is deservedly recognized as the ZBS disciples.
In a nutshell, zone blocking requires linemen to block “areas” instead of specific players. Via double-teams and releases, linemen work as a unit to block these “zones” and pick up whoever crosses their paths. This system creates massive initial lanes and cutback opportunities, using the defense’s pursuit to their advantage.
This unique style requires athletic and cerebral lineman. It also necessitates a very specific type of runner, which is why McKinnon should thrive.
The Glove-like Fit
Running backs must possess very specific traits to thrive in a Zone Blocking Scheme. Vision is the most essential asset, followed closely by patience and acceleration. In a matter of seconds, the back needs to quickly see how the initial run lanes are unfolding, check the cutback, decide which path is clearest, put his foot into the ground, and go. A well-executed Zone Blocking System is a true joy to watch, with the back and his blockers moving in perfect harmony for chunk gain after chunk gain.
Thus, Shanahan seeks a very specific profile and type of game for his lead backs. Inking McKinnon to the fourth-highest RB contract — almost double that of Carlos Hyde (who just racked up nearly 1300 total yards, 8 TDs, and 59 receptions here) — suggests the coach views McKinnon as a perfect fit.
Based on his limited game tape, and combine measurables, we tend to agree. Let’s start with the obvious: McKinnon is an athletic freak:
Yes, the numbers don’t lie: McKinnon led the 2014 combine in every single meaningful stat category. He will not lack for the acceleration, lateral-cutting, or speed to rack up monster runs, nor the power and toughness to break through arm tackles and reach the second level.
Again, though, vision is most crucial. Even in a primarily power-based attack, McKinnon continually flashed patience in letting blocks unfold, especially on the second level and in space down the field. Don’t take my word, though. Trust the coach who’s forged a career on finding late and undrafted talent that fits his scheme. In watching McKinnon, Shanahan “got lost” in what he saw:
“There’s so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do,” Shanahan said Thursday. “Even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you’ve still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. And whenever he did, he excelled a ton and looked very good at it.
I know the stuff we liked him on – if I could just cut up those numbers I think they would have been good numbers. But when you take the whole accumulation of things, I think they watered things down.”
Beyond just running, however, is McKinnon’s versatility. While one-dimensional backs like Alfred Morris have thrived strictly on vision and acceleration, all-purpose backs like Devonta Freeman and Steve Slaton (lol) have put up even gaudier numbers. Shanahan consistently schemes up screens and dump-offs, especially on third downs, to keep the chains moving. Even Hyde, a below-average receiving back, hauled in 59 receptions under Shanahan. McKinnon is far smoother in his routes, and much more dangerous in space and after the catch:
“What is a huge bonus on him is when you talk about the pass game,” Shanahan said. “When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams. I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run.
I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him. He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”
Thus, most 49ers Insiders expect McKinnon’s role to mirror Freeman. This amounted to 265 carries and 97 targets in 2015 (362 opportunities), and 227 carries and 65 targets in 2016 (292 opportunities) — 64 more chances than McKinnon’s career high of 218. Freeman was a bonafide RB1 with this work, amassing over 1,500 yards from scrimmage in both seasons (1,634 and 1,541 total yards), along with 14 + 13 TDs, and 73 + 54 receptions respectively.
With a highly similar build, running style, and versatility, to Freeman, McKinnon should put up very similar numbers with equal usage.
Summary – 2018s Breakout RB1
McKinnon is not without risk. He’s never handled “workhorse” volume, and seems small-ish for featured work at only 5’9″ and 209 lbs. Moreover, “on paper” fits never guarantee “on field” results, and McKinnon could fall flat on his face with a lack of track record. Lastly, the line, even with promising new center Weston Richburg, remains a bottom-15 unit.
But Shanahan and his RB1-breeding track record are well-worth betting on. Amidst an insanely deep draft class and talented Free Agent pool that included Hyde and Dion Lewis, Shanahan would never have thrown so much dough at an otherwise lightly-used back, unless he has the upmost confidence in his fit. And whenever an RBs talents match this scheme, the stats have been enormous.
McKinnon brings the versatility, vision, patience, and lateral quickness to become Shanahan’s latest 1,500 total yard, 60+ reception, 8-10 TD masterpiece.
If I had the security of Antonio Brown as a Round One wideout, McKinnon would be my ideal Round 2 target. As currently situated, he’ll have every chance at Top-Five, RB1 numbers without the same price tag. Should this backfield remain largely similar come July, consider McKinnon the latest member of my 2018 “All-In” Fantasy Football Team.
Wolf’s Projection: 225 carries, 73 targets, 1,450 total yards, 8 TDs, and 59 receptions.
Other Free Agency Fallouts:
- Sammy Watkins raising ceilings around him, but not his own, with the Chiefs
- Kirk Cousins lands in Fantasy Paradise with the Vikings; best for all is yet to come
- Case Keenum to Broncos, making you marginally more excited about their marginal offense
- Allen Robinson to have every opportunity at WR1 value with the Bears
- Trey Burton gives Matt Nagy the field-stretching TE he craves
- Andrew Norwell ensures Leonard Fournette will continue to steamroll
- Jimmy Graham brings massive TD upside in Packers explosive attack
- Taylor Gabriel will open things up for Mitch Trubisky and the Bears offense