One of the most surprising free agent moves for 2018 entails the 49ers signing Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30M contract. He becomes the fourth highest-paid running back in the league, behind only Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy. He’s getting more money than 28 other starting running backs in the NFL and that in a position that most teams are not willing to commit much money.
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McKinnon is an accomplished receiver out of the backfield but hasn’t been more than a part-time rusher. Even with his career-best reception mark last year, he still did not rank better than No.14 among running backs. That he would jump near the top of salaries is a surprise. The 49ers allowed Carlos Hyde to leave and sign with the Browns.
The 49ers pick ninth overall in the draft and this is a deeper draft for running backs. Paying up for McKinnon doesn’t preclude them still looking for backfield help in later rounds. He’s never been a full-time runner and at 5-9, 205 pounds is not big enough for a heavy load anyway. But the money involved suggests that he’s in line for much more than an occasional third-down role.
Kyle Shanahan’s first season as head coach and play caller in San Francisco resulted in Carlos Hyde receiving 240 carries and catching 59 passes. That’s almost 100 more touches than McKinnon’s produced in any season. Optimism was sparked when Jimmy Garoppolo peeled off five straight wins to end the 2016 season. And there are plenty of more moves in free agency and the draft to be made. But – the addition of McKinnon at that salary indicates that Shanahan sees more in the back than what his history suggests or what all other teams expect.