Jerick McKinnon: The best player nobody is talking about

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

Could Jerick McKinnon go from quality backup to rising star in 2016? It’s up to the Vikings to ensure the dynamic back gets a chance to shine.

The 2015 Vikings offense could be summarized by three words: conservative, methodical, and predictable. Leaning on a dominant defense, the game plan was to control the ball and limit mistakes by centering the offense around Adrian Peterson and the running game. While generally successful in its modest goals, the offense left fans frustrated as the team left big plays on the field and struggled to separate from opponents. Yet despite the offense producing disappointing results as it ranked 29th in the league in total yardage, one of the most dynamic playmakers on the team was largely relegated to the sidelines.

And no, I’m not talking about Cordarrelle Patterson.

Seemingly every time backup running back Jerick McKinnon stepped on the field he showcased a versatile skillset and incredible athleticism, taking handoffs from the shotgun, running from the I-formation, catching screen passes, running jet sweeps, and even running routes from the slot. No matter where he lined up, McKinnon was a match-up nightmare. Capitalizing on those match-ups next year by getting McKinnon more involved could go a long way in providing a boost to the offense.

While advocating for a pure backfield-by-committee approach would be ridiculous given the presence of still-dominant starter Adrian Peterson, incorporating McKinnon into the game plan is a must for Norv Turner and company in 2016.

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Even though Adrian Peterson is still an elite runner, last season it became clear that for the offense to develop his role would have to change. As this chart shows, Peterson struggled greatly when asked to run from the shotgun, forcing Teddy Bridgewater to play from under center much more often than he was comfortable. Peterson’s reliance on the I-formation clashed with Bridgewater, who was a far better passer from the shotgun, and created a significant problem in the offense.

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Fortunately, as the stats show Jerick McKinnon is far more effective than Peterson from the shotgun and a much better fit with Teddy’s skillset. McKinnon’s superior ability from the shotgun provides the flexibility for the offense to line up in the shotgun without losing the threat of the run, making him a powerful asset on passing downs. In addition to his ability to run from the shotgun, McKinnon’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield provides a spark in the passing game that Peterson simply can’t match. Thus, while it will still be critical for the Vikings’ power running offense to feed Adrian Peterson on early downs, subbing McKinnon in situationally will allow the offense to open up more in the passing game.

But although using McKinnon as the primary third down back will definitely be a start, the fact is that he’s simply too talented to be limited to even that expanded role. With absurd 4.37 speed, elite agility, and surprising strength, Jerick McKinnon is a home run threat whenever he touches the ball and needs to be given more opportunities.

For the coaching staff, finding ways to get the versatile back the ball shouldn’t be a problem, as McKinnon showed an incredible variety of skills in his limited playing time last year.

First and foremost, McKinnon excelled at both inside and outside running plays, showcasing the speed to get to the edge and the toughness to fight for yards up the middle. Additionally, McKinnon showed a true gift for catching passes out of the backfield, displaying a full arsenal of routes including angles, flats, screens, and many other complex patterns.

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His versatility as a receiver wasn’t limited to the backfield, however. By motioning McKinnon out to the slot, the coaching staff was able to isolate him in favorable match-ups against linebackers. From the slot, McKinnon ran complex routes typically reserved for receivers with ease, leaving the physically outmatched defenders in the dust.

McKinnon’s athleticism also makes him perfect for any number of gadget plays such as jet sweeps designed to get him the ball in space. With a true Swiss Army Knife to work with, the Vikings’ coaches will be able to get very creative when designing him plays.

One thing is certain, though: no matter how Jerick McKinnon gets the ball, if the Vikings commit to giving him at least 10 to 12 touches a game then big plays will not be a problem. This will be the year that Jerick “Jet” McKinnon takes off.