Midway through the 2016 season, the Minnesota Vikings made an effort to get Jerick McKinnon the ball in the passing game more often.
After seven weeks, the third-year running back had just eight receptions and averaged just 2.9 Yards Per Carry. Then in the final eight weeks, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur noticeably started using McKinnon out of the shotgun more often in the run game in the final stretch of the season and he gained 254 yards on 62 carries (4.1 Yards Per Carry) over the final six games and caught 35 passes on 39 targets for 226 yards and one touchdown.
On runs like this one against Dallas, McKinnon shows his ability to be patient, letting right tackle Jeremiah Sirles open up a hole on the right side, then winning the 1-on-1 with the safety with an impressive jump cut.
Here is another example of the Vikings’ 24-year-old back ripping off a big chunk of yardage out of the shotgun. He explodes upfield, but when the hole closes, he breaks outside for a first down.
From his splits, it seems McKinnon’s numbers weren’t just hurt by failures on the offensive line, but usage in the wrong situations.
McKinnon’s final third of the ’16 season was much closer to the player that Vikings fans were used to in his first two seasons. In the first 27 games of his career, he carried the ball 165 times for 809 yards, good for 4.9 Yards Per Carry.
The signing of Latavius Murray shouldn’t indicate that McKinnon will be relegated to the bench. In fact, it could open him up to only be used in more favorable situations.
As you can see, the Vikings only ran McKinnon nine times out of a 2-back split, which would have mostly been in the shotgun. Now with Murray in the backfield, Shurmur could use both running backs on the field at the same time more often.
McKinnon lined up as a wide receiver from time to time in his first two seasons in Minnesota, but rarely went out wide or into the slot in 2016. To score a potential game-tying touchdown against the Cowboys, the Vikings finally turned to him as a receiver and it paid off.
Finding ways to get McKinnon the ball should be under the list of top offseason priorities for Shurmur. He was too often used as only a dump off option in 2016, gaining just 4.3 Yards Per Catch on throws behind the line of scrimmage, but 7.1 on throws past the line.With Cordarrelle Patterson gone, McKinnon could be used in his role in the screen game on quick throws that create space for the runner or on routes underneath zone coverage.
Running back rotations worked brilliantly for several teams in the NFL last season, including Oakland with Murray. While he rushed for around 300 fewer yards than in 2015, the Raiders averaged the sixth most rushing yards per game and ranked 10th in Yards Per Carry. The fifth best team in yards per game, Atlanta, used a combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and the Patriots, who ranked seventh, used a ground-and-pound back in LeGarrette Murray and receiving threat in James White.
There are many different ways the Vikings can use McKinnon. Don’t expect him to disappear because they added another running back. In fact, he might even find his most effective role yet.