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After going back through and re-watching all of Jerick McKinnon’s touches from last season, it made me re-mad. The sorry luck of some players. On many other NFL teams, McKinnon would’ve been a breakout star already, a Pro Bowl-level running back. Unfortunately, for McKinnon, he had the misfortune of being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings…a football team where if you’re not Adrian Peterson, you don’t matter.
Honestly, the Minnesota Vikings have some of the most talented skill players in the NFL, and it’s all going to drift away under the watchful eye of Norv Turner. Vikings’ fans will be pacified ahead with 9–7 wildcard seasons, and talking about that missed field goal from last season’s playoffs. It will all be a beautiful distraction from the fact that the Vikings should be a more dominant force in the NFC – not just the team that beats most of the teams they should, and cannot consistently topple the better teams they face (2–4 against playoff teams last season).
Chief among the unused toys in Norv Turner’s toy box is Jerick McKinnon. To put McKinnon’s talent into perspective, I would call him, and have called him, the smaller package version of David Johnson. Of all the running backs that are 210 pounds or lighter in the NFL, Jerick McKinnon is the greatest athlete among them. Not just an ‘athlete’, as many feared he might be (all athlete, no awareness/instinct), but he’s actually proven himself in the NFL. In 2014, when the delightful human Adrian Peterson got suspended, then-rookie McKinnon was finally given a chance a few games into the season, and he posted an 18 carries for 135 yards in his first real NFL work at running back…Turner kept pushing unathletic Matt Asiata at first, but eventually he could no longer ignore McKinnon. Two games later – a six-catch game for McKinnon…answering critics who didn’t think he could transition from college QB to catching passes at running back. The following week – another 100+ yard rushing game (103 yards vs. the stout defense of the Buffalo Bills that season). A few weeks later, McKinnon’s season would get cut short due to a back injury. It’s not just the numbers/output – you could see on tape that McKinnon is something closer to special; something different than just the regular ‘good’ RB.
Conquering hero Adrian Peterson was welcomed back after 2014 with open arms in 2015, and McKinnon went back to ignored. It’s things like this in the NFL that make me sick.
…And don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m ‘not there in the practices’, etc. As I railed about David Johnson earlier in the 2015 season – don’t forget it was Arizona that was busy pushing Andre Ellington, and then signing and pushing Chris Johnson for their ground game efforts. David Johnson was sitting on the sidelines, being mocked at the time (as he scored TD after TD on limited touches). Had not both Ellington and CJ2K got hurt at the same time, forcing the team to use David Johnson, we would still be complaining about David Johnson’s misuse. A running back who is a top five pick in the redraft and dynasty startups today, and he might never have been so had Arizona’s coaching staff had anything to say about it. I would also again remind you how delightful it was to hear how stunned Seattle’s coaches were when they had discovered that Tyler Lockett could play wide receiver. The Seattle offensive coordinator loves to quip to the media about how surprised he was because he just planned to use Lockett for special teams. Lockett wasn’t even working with the first- or second-team wide receiver group early in training camp or in the preseason. It took Lockett returning every punt and kick he touched for a touchdown before anybody thought he might be a decent offensive weapon as well. Jerick McKinnon is in that same sob story – overlooked superstar in waiting on his own team. I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt. It happens all the time in the NFL.
If you’ve been a regular reader of my work, you knew all of this about McKinnon. I complain about this kind of stuff a few seconds after a stranger shakes my hand and says “Nice to meet you.” So why should we do a ‘Rewind’ study on Jerick McKinnon, a guy who I’ve already made my mind up is a superstar in waiting/a player I’ll be complaining about for years? I’m conducting this ‘Rewind’ study because of something I remembered last regular season. It was a single moment logged in my head, and then became a growing theme to finish the 2015 season. I wanted to go back through the tape and be sure of what I remembered.
I found the moment going back through 2015 play by play. The moment that set off a subsequent series of events which gives us all hope that Jerick McKinnon could matter in Fantasy Football 2016 beyond a simple Adrian Peterson handcuff.
Let me set the scene…
Early on in the 2015 season, the Vikings’ offense was pretty typical. Run AP to the left and run AP to the right. Every so often, Jerick McKinnon would get a few carries…and by a few, I mean barely a few. 2.5 carries and 1.1 targets per game after 10 games in 2015 – a lot of the touches occurring in games that were over or in hand by one team or the other. There was no rhyme or reason or plan for McKinnon. If Peterson decided he was done for a moment, then McKinnon was graced with a few snaps.
Something started to happen around weeks 8–9. At some point, someone on the Vikings’ staff, possibly Norv Turner, or however many of his relatives are working as assistant coaches, happened to notice the emerging trend that had taken off – the one where high-end NFL offenses were utilizing one of their running backs as a weapon of mass destruction in the passing game. The Patriots dropped this twist on the NFL on opening day like a nuclear bomb. Several NFL teams jumped on that trend once the all-clear signal was given because ‘the Patriots were doing it‘. Half a season gone by, and it appeared the Vikings coaches may have figured it out.
Apparently, it hadn’t occurred to them that they possessed one of the greatest prospects in the NFL for this kind of work – the ultimate pass-game RB weapon. You can’t blame them. These plays are probably not in Norv Turner’s playbook from the 1980s…that he still uses today. They never would’ve thought to try this in practice or otherwise. The Vikings are more interested in getting Matt Asiata more screen passes because it’s funny, because he’s really big…and slow as death. Smashmouth football is so manly. Who cares about getting one of the fastest players in the league (McKinnon) a simple short pass and watching him outrun the defense, when you can flip a pass out to your fullback-like running back (Asiata) and watch the funny collisions taking place 0–3 yards down the field?
In Week 10, in a game against the Oakland Raiders, it happened…on one play, for one target, Jerick McKinnon left the backfield in the middle of a competitive game and lined up as a wide receiver in a five-wide set. Teddy Bridgewater then threw him the ball. A modern miracle for the Minnesota offense. Thus began the serious evolution of Jerick McKinnon working as Dion Lewis or Duke Johnson or Lance Dunbar, etc.
*Our ever-evolving, updating throughout the preseason Fantasy Football Draft Guide is projected to be available around June 7-10th. We’ll keep you posted on the ‘drop date’ on FFM.*
Here’s the statistical trend on the ‘evolution’ of McKinnon getting targeted in 2015:
0.6 catches on 0.8 targets per game = the first 8 games of 2015
2.1 catches on 3.1 targets per game = the final 9 games of 2015 (incl. one playoff game)
2.7 catches on 3.8 targets per game = the final 6 games of 2015 (incl. one playoff game)
It is possible that the Vikings are ‘onto something’ with McKinnon as their pass-game weapon out of the backfield.
I watched all McKinnon’s touches from 2015. Early in the year it was simple screens/swing passes…and barely any at that. When things started taking off, McKinnon ran patterns out of the backfield, slanting over the middle and catching passes like a wide receiver. The comedy was that he ran the same route every single time he went over the middle…run off the right side of the line, and quick slant into the middle. Occasionally, he ran the play the same way only from the left side. Later in the season, after running that same pattern over and over, I recall him running it again, but after a first step towards the interior slant he double-moved and turned it up deep…and the defense was dumbfounded, and McKinnon went wide open for a sweet catch downfield.
So what to expect in 2016? I would assume this is a real, purposeful plan by Minnesota. They used McKinnon in the passing game on purpose as a weapon down the stretch…and in their playoff game (3 rec. on 5 targets for McKinnon). The NFL trend is in that direction. I think Norv Turner is not great at what he does, but he can’t be this oblivious…he already showed the capacity to learn and adapt a little on it. If he expands things in the offseason…McKinnon will have serious PPR/Fantasy relevance this season.
McKinnon’s ADP is tracking as the #45–50 RB off the board, more so on the strength of being the AP handcuff. I think McKinnon could be used like Dion Lewis in 2016, and push towards RB2-RB3 status in PPR leagues…a guy catching 3–4–5+ passes per game with extreme gifts to turn simple plays into long TDs.
IF McKinnon ever gets a chance to be ‘the man’ this season, due to an Adrian Peterson injury or incarceration – you’re not just looking at a simple, sweet handcuff maneuver. You’re looking at one of the most talented running backs in all the NFL. He could outproduce Adrian Peterson in PPR leagues.
You want to be holding a Fantasy Football ticket to this show when it happens.
*Our Dynasty Rookie Draft (+IDP) top-100+ prospects with thousands of words of commentary and draft strategy discussion is now posted at College Football Metrics.com. We’ll post 10-15+ versions of our Dynasty Rookie Draft rankings throughout the preseason, as well as adding in a few of the bigger names from 2017 for a preview into the future.