San Francisco 49ers: Jerick McKinnon continues to get lost in the shuffle

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 14: Jerick McKinnon /

San Francisco 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon has gotten lost in the shuffle this summer as he recovers from yet another knee ailment.

The San Francisco 49ers‘ 2018 season was completely derailed by injuries before it could ever really get started. Besides the obvious loss of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo early in the year, the team also played the entire season without free-agent signing Jerick McKinnon.

McKinnon was signed by the 49ers two offseasons ago after four seasons spent in Minnesota. With the Vikings, McKinnon would serve as a reliable pass-catching back who fit well as a part of the team’s backfield rotation.

However, many were a bit surprised when the 49ers handed McKinnon a sizable four-year, $30 million contract prior to the start of the 2018 season.

McKinnon planned to earn every dollar of that deal starting in 2018, but a torn ACL suffered in the preseason would force him to miss all of his expected first season with the 49ers.

Now, entering the 2019 season, the 27-year-old has unfortunately gotten lost in the shuffle.

In McKinnon’s absence, the 49ers saw 2017 undrafted rookie Matt Breida put together a breakout campaign assuming the starting role. The second-year pro averaged 5.3 yards per rushing attempt and accumulated over 1,000 scrimmage yards on the season.

Breida was one of very few bright spots on a 49ers team that struggled through injuries and inexperience last year. However, the hope was that McKinnon would return and split time with Breida once he returned for the 2019 season.

But those plans were muddled when the 49ers decided to sign former Atlanta Falcons tailback Tevin Coleman to a modest two-year, $10 million contract in the offseason.

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Coleman has spent the past four seasons in Atlanta serving as Devonta Freeman‘s primary backup but had seen his fair share of playing time with Freeman’s injury history.

On top of that, Coleman has previously played under 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan during Shanahan’s famed tenure as the Falcons offensive coordinator.

With an impressive resume and already established pedigree, that left Coleman as the presumed top running back in the 49ers backfield. Of course, a committee was always the logical way to go about this so the term “starter” was more of a formality than anything.

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Breida was going to be fine as he had shown enough promise last season that his role in the offense was all but secure. But for McKinnon, he didn’t even have a defined role, to begin with.

This past training camp was supposed to be the place that McKinnon would remind the 49ers what they saw in the talented tailback when they signed him just a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, his knee injuries continued to flare up and keep him off the field.

As it stands, McKinnon hasn’t played yet this summer and his status for Week 1 appears doubtful at the moment. In his place, Coleman has proven to be a very capable back in Shanahan’s system once again and Breida has reminded 49ers fans of his immense talent.

All the while, McKinnon has been left watching on the sideline.

Even depth running backs such as Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson have impressed this preseason in McKinnon’s place. Mostert will likely make the team because of his special teams skills but could be in-line for more work on offense while McKinnon is out.

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As for Wilson, the 49ers will likely attempt to stash him on the practice squad without a viable roster spot available.

But for McKinnon, every day he spends on the sideline is another day that Coleman and Breida solidify their roles in the offense. Even when McKinnon returns, it’s fair to wonder what his role might even be.

The 2014 third-round pick has established himself as a useful third-down back with soft hands and capable blocking ability. However, both Coleman and Breida could feasibly fill that role as well.

Neither of the two projected top backs is a poor pass-catcher. In fact, one could argue that that is an area of strength in their respective games.

McKinnon’s role is undefined at the moment and the longer he sits out with an injury, the more apparent it becomes that he may not even have one upon his return.

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It’s unfortunate, but sometimes injuries are just the reality of the business — even for talented players like McKinnon.

But health and availability will always trump talent.