Before moving on to his offseason routine, Jerick McKinnon had to spend some time reflecting on his 2016 season – not so much to focus on what went wrong, but on what he could learn.
Injuries and struggles on the offensive line made McKinnon’s first full year as a feature back a rough ride. He averaged just 3.4 Yards Per Carry, a significant drop off from 4.9 YPC over his first two seasons.
According to Sporting Charts, only four running backs with more than 100 carries had a higher percentage of runs stuffed in the backfield. And when he ran the ball up the middle, the Vikings’ runner nicknamed “Jet” was stalled for 2.6 YPC.
McKinnon probably watched Oakland and Dallas running backs glide through gigantic holes like a kid stuck inside with the flu while his friends played outside. But blaming teammates – publicly or privately – usually doesn’t do much good. So instead he looked at the in-season tweaks that led to an improvement over the last six games in which he averaged a solid 4.1 YPC.
“My first year I was more of a patient guy, setting my runs up, but with the way everybody was switching in and out [on the offensive line], it made me get used to making that one cut sometimes,” McKinnon said over the phone on Friday. “Toward the end of the season I was more of a one-cut guy. At the beginning, I wasn’t doing anything different than I did the first two seasons. So after turning the page, working out this offseason, my mindset has been to come back strong, be at the best that I can be and produce at the level I know I can produce.”
With six months between season’s end and training camp’s open, offseason plans are an art form for NFL players and McKinnon has spent more than two months of his with the Kendrick Lamar of offseason workouts: Adrian Peterson.
McKinnon and Peterson have formed a bond over the past three seasons – which doesn’t always happen between aging superstar and up-and-comer, just ask Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. But A.P. was a McKinnon fan from Day 1.
“He’s pretty impressive and there’s not too many guys who impress me like that, especially rookies coming in,” Peterson told The Star Tribune back in 2014. “He’s been able to do some real good things in the offense, picking it up well and just his running style.”
In his rookie year, McKinnon impressively filled in for Peterson while the superstar was suspended, gaining 538 yards on 113 carries, then acted as a change-of-pace back in 2015.
“He took me in from the start, coming into the league, he taught me a lot,” McKinnon said. “I think my game is a little different from some of the other backs around the league and the things that I do. It’s always good to have somebody like that on your side supporting you, pushing you and just making me better overall as a player. I can’t thank him enough.”
As only he can, McKinnon succinctly summarized how Peterson’s absence will feel for everyone involved with the Vikings and their fans.
“It’s going to be weird,” he said, laughing.
Now the soon-to-be 25-year-old playmaker has a new bandmate in the backfield. The Vikings signed former Raiders running back Latavius Murray earlier this offseason. Last year, the Raiders used Murray as part of a trio that gained 1,922 yards, sixth most in the NFL.
McKinnon understands it’s a one-two punch league. Only one running back carried the ball 300 times last season (Ezekiel Elliott) as opposed to 2006 when there were 10 backs with 300-plus rushes, so it’s likely that the new co-workers will both see plenty of playing time.
“I texted him after he signed the new contract to congratulate him, he seems like a cool guy so I just told him that, on my end, I just want to come in and compete so it will be good working with him and learning from him,” McKinnon said. “He’s been named to one Pro Bowl, so he’s had success in the league. I’m looking forward to getting in there, working with him, competing against him, learning about how he thinks about certain things, getting his point of view on certain situations and runs and plays, stuff like that.”
With his contract coming up after this season, McKinnon needs to make it clear that the backfield combination should be a 50-50 split or better in his direction. Last season, it took longer than it should have for interim (and now full-time) offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to use McKinnon as part of the passing game. In the final six weeks, he caught 31 of his total 43 receptions. And on third downs, he was merely a check down for Sam Bradford, gaining just 3.8 Yards Per Reception.
This time around, Shurmur gets to implement a playbook that’s entirely his. And the Vikings’ offensive line should be improved in 2017 by adding tackles Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff, who are better run than pass blockers.
Circumstances should be better. The rest is up to McKinnon to prove the 2014 and 2015 versions were closer to reality than 2016.