Fantasy Football: Jerick McKinnon Will Be a Top-5 Running Back in 2018
Right now, he is projected to be the top running back on the depth chart for the first time in his career -- without finding himself there because of injuries.
As a result, he has seen a career-high average draft position across the industry, which begs the question: just how high is the ceiling for McKinnon? He can be a top-five fantasy runner in PPR leagues, for these three simple reasons.
We all remember the famous Spiderman quote from Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility." That applies directly to McKinnon's new role in San Francisco. He signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the Niners, but most of the guaranteed money comes in year one. In fact, his cap hit for 2018 is $10.5 million.
That's a ton of money for a running back in today's NFL. In fact, it's the highest cap hit of any NFL running back other than that of Le'Veon Bell, who is currently on the franchise tag.
Typically, if a running back gets paid a big contract, he is featured in the offense. For proof, here is the usage for every running back with at least a $9 million cap hit since 2011.
As you can see, these players were, on average, workhorses, seeing 21.2 opportunities (rushes plus targets) per game. For perspective, just seven running backs met or exceeded that number in 2017. All seven were inside of the top 10 in PPR points per game.
McKinnon should also see a good bit of volume based on the team he now plays for.
In Jimmy Garoppolo's five starts to close out the season, Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida combined for 135 carries and 19 targets. That's 30.8 opportunities per game. McKinnon obviously won't get all of them -- Breida accounted for 11.2 opportunities per game and is back with the team -- but there is a massive amount of volume available to the team's running backs.
In particular, McKinnon should get most of the receiving work because Breida saw only four targets in that span. McKinnon has more than 40 receptions each of the past two seasons. He is also a far better pass-catcher than Hyde was, averaging 0.33 Reception Net Expected Points (you can read more about NEP in our glossary) per target to Hyde's 0.19 in 2017.
No matter how you slice it, McKinnon should be among the league leaders in touch volume when all is said and done.
We love touches at the running back position, but to be a great fantasy player, you also need to score touchdowns. Fortunately, the 49ers should provide McKinnon with plenty of those chances as well.
San Francisco averaged 28.8 points per game under Garoppolo, a number that would have ranked behind only the Rams over the course of the full season. Making that accomplishment even more impressive was the teams they did it against.
The Niners faced off with the teams ranked 2nd, 9th, and 12th in scoring defense over that span, including a 44-point demolition of the vaunted Jaguars defense. This offense is absolutely for real with their new quarterback, who led the league in Passing Success Rate and expected points per drop back.
But will McKinnon receive the short-yardage touches? The early indicators would say yes.
Last season, Hyde saw 18 carries inside of the five-yard line. Breida saw just one. It is clear that the team does not see Breida as the guy to get into the end-zone. If the offense can continue to be successful with Garoppolo under center, McKinnon has a shot to post some serious touchdown numbers.
In addition to the overall offensive success of the Niners, McKinnon will also have the pleasure of running behind a better offensive line than what he has last year. In 2017, the Vikings ranked 19th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards. The 49ers ranked 11th. San Francisco also made some additions up front, adding Weston Richburg, who was a top-15-graded center -- including top-12 as a run blocker -- in 2017 by Pro Football Focus. He is expected to play guard, where he started as a rookie for the Giants.
The improvement in offensive line play is particularly interesting because McKinnon played in a similar run-blocking system in Minnesota. We know that the Shanahans are famous for their zone blocking scheme, but the Vikings actually led the league in zone runs in 2017 per Sports Info Solutions.
With a similar scheme and objectively worse offensive line, McKinnon still had a higher Rushing Success Rate (39.07 percent) than Hyde (35.83 percent). It is reasonable to expect McKinnon to do more with his rushing opportunities than Hyde did with his in 2017.
So will McKinnon be a top-five fantasy running back? Here is what we know:
McKinnon has a clear path to one of the biggest workloads in the NFL, he is an accomplished receiver (the average number of receptions for a top-five PPR running back is approximately 60 the last three years), he should have plenty of touchdown opportunities (the average number of rushing touchdowns for a top-five PPR running back is approximately 10 the last three years), he is objectively better than Hyde, who was the RB18 over the final five weeks of the season while ceding a large portion of the backfield workload to Breida.
There are simply not that many players across the league who meet these qualifications, which leads me to believe that McKinnon is one of the select few running backs who has a shot to crack the top five in 2018.
At his current Fantasy Football Calculator ADP of 58.4 (RB24), that makes him an absolute steal.