This is part two in a two part series examining Jerick McKinnon's potential fit in the 49ers offense. Part one examined scheme fit in the running game. Part two will examine scheme fit the in the passing game.

In part one of this series on 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon, we examined his potential scheme fit in the offense and how head coach Kyle Shanahan could possibly use him in the running game. Today we look at the ways we can expect Shanahan to scheme him open in the passing game.

McKinnon amassed 984 receiving yards on 142 receptions through his first four years in the league. The 25 year-old running back also has five receiving touchdowns. Per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee (now currently The Athletic), even though there was a lack of film in both the passing the running game, Shanahan still very much thought there was a role for him, stating:

There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do. 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.

So what exactly is there to like about McKinnon's potential role in the passing game?

Much like his skill set in the running game that I detailed previously, McKinnon also has the versatility and speed to excel in the passing game and can line up anywhere on the field to catch passes. That will provide Shanahan with a huge boost to his playbook, potentially having two backs who can catch passes out of the backfield (the other being fullback Kyle Juszczyk).

Last season for the 49ers, Carlos Hyde caught 59 passes for 350 yards and had nine drops on 68 catchable targets for a 13.24% drop rate per Pro Football Focus. Matt Breida had 21 receptions for 180 yards, one touchdown, and six dropped passes on 27 catchable targets for a 22.22% drop rate. While Breida still figures to be the #2 running back, contrast those with the current backfield pass catchers: McKinnon dropped 3 passes on 54 catchable targets for a 5.56% drop rate and Juszczyk only dropped one pass on 34 catchable targets for a 2.94% drop rate.

JERICK MCKINNON CAREER RECEIVING STATS
Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G Ctch% YScm
2014 22 MIN rb 31 11 6 41 27 135 5 0 17 2.5 12.3 65.90% 673
2015 23 MIN 31 16 0 29 21 173 8.2 1 30 1.3 10.8 72.40% 444
2016 24 MIN rb 21 15 7 53 43 255 5.9 2 41 2.9 17 81.10% 794
2017 25 MIN rb 21 16 1 68 51 421 8.3 2 41 3.2 26.3 75.00% 991
Career 58 14 191 142 984 6.9 5 41 2.4 17 2902
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference

There are two ways we can expect Shanahan to use McKinnon in the passing game and that's as receiver out of the backfield and as a receiver split out wide, both of which McKinnon has done with some regularity in Minnesota.

Shanahan likes to utilize running backs as pass catchers out of the backfield and did so quite frequently in his first year with the 49ers and in two years with the Falcons. Since running backs are not natural receivers, Shanahan utilizes them in ways that exploit match-ups against linebackers and safeties rather than against corners.

RUNNING BACKS AS WIDEOUTS - 4 VERTICALS


One way Shanahan will utilize running backs is as outside receivers. It's not so much to be used as decoys either, it's to take advantage of the match-ups of potential linebackers or bigger safeties having to cover in space against much more athletic running backs.

In 2016, the Falcons under Shanahan employed their running backs in a variety of ways.



The Falcons are in a heavy run formation consisting of 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, one receiver). Running back Devonta Freeman motions out of the back field wide to the left creating an empty backfield. The Falcons are running the four verticals concept with a twist. Freeman's route is as an underneath receiver on a slant under the verticals.



The Raiders safety cheats over to Julio Jones' side and at the snap, all three tight ends release downfield rather than having one stay in to block. The verticals put the safety in a bind and clear out the middle of the field for quarterback Matt Ryan to hit Freeman underneath. Freeman gains 24 yards.

We can expect to see McKinnon used the same way.



The only difference in this play by the Vikings against the Bears is that they are in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). The formation by the offense draws man-to-man coverage, an ideal situation from which to run the crossing route underneath the verticals. In this situation, McKinnon being out wide right also draws a linebacker in coverage as the two corners are split out to the right side of the defensive formation.



The Bears, however, do not cover McKinnon at all after the snap as the above image demonstrates as he begins to run free across the middle. The linebacker over the top of him prior to the snap ends up running with the tight end.




Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater dumps a pass off over the middle to McKinnon with the closest defenders three yards behind the line to gain.



McKinnon catches the pass and immediately turns up field into open space. He makes a defender miss before gaining 25 yards on 3rd and 5.

TRADITIONAL RUNNING BACK SET - MESH CONCEPT


Another way Kyle Shanahan will utilize his running backs in the passing game is by just simply running them out of the backfield, clearing the out the coverage, and throwing the ball to a more athletic running back or fullback in space.



The 49ers here are running the "mesh concept". The mesh concept involves two receivers crossing underneath at a "mesh point" over the middle. The offense can add additional elements to further laterally or vertically stretch a defense.



At the snap, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo starts out looking at the mesh receivers running across the middle. Running back Carlos Hyde misreads the blitz and lets a free rusher through the B-gap, forcing Garoppolo to throw a quick pass to fullback Kyle Juszczyk running a wheel route out of the backfield.

Last season, the Vikings used McKinnon in a similar role out of the backfield. McKinnon collected a 41-yard reception on an identical concept against the Bengals in Week 15.



The Vikings are running the mesh concept here too. This provides yet another example of how McKinnon can be used to exploit match-ups against slower defenders.



At the snap, the two Vikings receivers to the right side of the formation release inside and take the Bengals defenders inside toward the mesh point. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard (No. 21) passes off his coverage to the linebackers as they funnel toward Laquan Treadwell (No. 11) running the "mesh" across the middle.



Dennard's hesitation allows McKinnon to release freely into open space down the right sideline as there is no defender anywhere near him. Quarterback Case Keenum sees the breakdown in coverage and immediately pushes the ball downfield to McKinnon with Dennard racing to catch him.



It's here that McKinnon provides value to Shanahan's offense as a receiver who can not only be schemed open but one who can pivot and change direction at full speed.



In the face of opposing defenders in the open field, he gets Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem (No. 42) to over pursue by giving him a cut back to the inside before gaining extra yards after the catch.

These are just some of the ways that we can expect Shanahan to use McKinnon, giving the 49ers passing game a much needed lift. It's tough to predict exactly how Shanahan will use McKinnon but we can at least count on seeing him used in a variety ways out of the backfield and split out wide. Shanahan got his guy and this could at least be the beginning of a dangerous combination.

All gifs and images courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.