How the Vikings Can Turn Jerick McKinnon Into the NFL's Most Dynamic Rookie

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How the Vikings Can Turn Jerick McKinnon Into the NFL's Most Dynamic Rookie
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If you’re not a Minnesota Vikings fan or a draft junkie, you might not yet be familiar with Jerick McKinnon’s ability as a football player. That could change in a hurry once the season begins if the Norsemen find creative ways to take advantage of their third-round pick’s dynamic playmaking ability.

The No. 96-overall selection of the 2014 draft, McKinnon is facing a big leap to the National Football League from being an unheralded college player out of Georgia Southern.

McKinnon’s lack of widespread name recognition is a direct result of playing at a lower level of competition (Football Championship Subdivision), but it’s not to say he wasn’t productive in his collegiate career. Both a quarterback and a running back for the GSU Eagles, McKinnon finished his four seasons with a total of 3,899 rushing yards.

He’ll be a running back in Minnesota, where he’ll back up Adrian Peterson, arguably the NFL’s preeminent player at his position. Promisingly for the rookie, he’s already made a distinct impression on his revered position-mate.

“He’s pretty impressive and there’s not too many guys who impress me like that, especially rookies coming in,” Peterson said, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune. “He’s been able to do some real good things in the offense, picking it up well and just his running style.”

The Vikings didn’t necessarily have a need for another offensive playmaker on the field in 2014. Peterson will continue to see the lion’s share of playing time at halfback as long as he is healthy, while triple-threat wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson could be on the brink of second-year superstardom.

That said, it’s unlikely Minnesota invested in him a third-round pick—one of the three draft selections the Vikings acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in the March 2013 Percy Harvin trade—for him to ride the bench as a Peterson backup. An explosive athlete with significant versatility and evident big-play ability, the first-year player has a skill set that Minnesota would be remiss not to utilize as soon as possible.

Why McKinnon Was Well Worth a Top-100 Pick

No matter where McKinnon lined up on the field, he was a player whom opposing defenses always had to account for during his four years at Georgia Southern.

McKinnon made many big plays during his collegiate career. The defenses he will face in the NFL will be much tougher than the ones he went up against in the FCS, where many of his opponents lacked speed and sound tackling, but there’s reason to believe the ability of the athletically gifted McKinnon should translate to the next level.

Even against SEC competition, McKinnon continued to make defenses look inadequate. This was especially true against Florida last year, when he ran for 125 yards on just nine carries in Georgia Southern’s stunning upset win.

At the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, McKinnon proved that the speed he shows on tape wasn’t only a result of inferior competition.

By running a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at 209 pounds, McKinnon recorded the second-best “Speed Score” among all running backs in Indianapolis, according to the metric produced by Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz for ESPN.com (subscription required).

His score, 110.5, was more than five points better than that of Kent State product Dri Archer, who ran the combine’s fastest 40 in 4.26 seconds and was selected with the 97th-overall pick—one spot after McKinnon—by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Across the board, McKinnon had some of the best measurables among all players at this year’s combine.

Jerick McKinnon's Other Combine Measurables
Bench Press Vert Jump Broad Jump 3-Cone 20-Yd Shuttle
32 reps 40.5 in 11 ft 6.83 sec 4.12 sec

NFL.com

There’s more to McKinnon than just straight-line speed. He uses his vision very well to find running lanes. He can cut sharply and subtly, all the while maintaining his speed and acceleration, to obtain space from defenders in the open field.

He’s no power back, and he’s likely to have limited effectiveness between the tackles in the NFL, but McKinnon is a strong runner who doesn’t shy away from contact and consistently falls forward through tackles. By keeping his legs churning throughout a play, and doing so with impressive leg turnover, he requires defenders to get a solid grasp on him in order to bring him down.

McKinnon is a project whose game must continue to develop, largely because he played multiple positions at Georgia Southern and has limited experience at running back as a result. But if the Vikings can find him a niche and he can steadily add more skills to round out his game, he could end up being the most electrifying offensive playmaker to come from this year’s draft class.

How Can McKinnon Fit In as a Rookie?

The most obvious roadblock to immediate playing time for McKinnon in Minnesota is the talent the Vikings already had on their roster.

Peterson is a three-down runner who has been among the NFL’s top 10 in rushing attempts for five of the last six seasons. Barring injury, that workload should remain high in 2014.

Patterson, meanwhile, is an X-factor who should be used heavily and all over the field this season. While he is expected to line up primarily as an outside wide receiver, he can also be used as a slot receiver and as a runner out of the backfield.

It’s a safe bet that Peterson and Patterson will be the key players of the Minnesota offense in 2014 and receive the most offensive touches as a result. But that shouldn’t stop the Vikings from factoring McKinnon into the game plan if he is ready to contribute.

Doing so will require some creativity from the Minnesota coaching staff, but that’s nothing new for Norv Turner, who is in his first year as Vikings offensive coordinator but his 30th consecutive season on an NFL sideline.

A template for how to use McKinnon could come from Turner’s work with the San Diego Chargers, specifically from 2007-10, a span in which Darren Sproles emerged from relative obscurity to become a dangerous weapon out of the San Diego backfield.

Much like he has this year with Peterson, Turner inherited the league’s best running back at the time—LaDainian Tomlinson—when he became the head coach of the Chargers in 2007. That didn’t stop him from finding ways to get the ball in the hands of Sproles.

In his four years in San Diego while Turner was head coach, Sproles had 384 offensive touches on which he gained 2,494 yards and scored 17 touchdowns.

As a runner, McKinnon has a long-term advantage over Sproles, in that he has the size to eventually emerge as a feature back, whereas the 5’6”, 190-pound Sproles has always been limited to a complementary role.

To make a big impact as a rookie, however, McKinnon must prove that he can be a viable contributor in passing situations.

A great way to create playmaking opportunities for McKinnon could be lining him up situationally as a slot receiver, which has been a staple of Sproles’ usage in his NFL career. He caught the ball well during Senior Bowl practices and at the combine, but doesn’t have much experience as an in-game pass-catcher, having recorded just three receptions in his senior season.

The “Wildcat” formation hasn’t been used much in the NFL in the past few seasons, but that’s another way the Vikings could get McKinnon involved. He’s not an NFL-caliber passer by any means, but he has enough arm strength to take advantage if a defense gets caught out of position. More importantly, his experience taking snaps and finding running room from that position could give the Vikings another wrinkle with which they can confuse and frustrate defenses.

Source: YouTube via Makeagif.com

Special teams opportunities could also allow McKinnon to establish himself as a big-play guy in 2014. The Vikings might not need McKinnon to return kickoffs or punts, as they have a dynamic duo in that capacity already with Patterson and cornerback Marcus Sherels, but Mike Priefer has indicated, according to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, that McKinnon could receive some work as a returner.

There are many ways the Vikings could incorporate McKinnon into their offense in 2014. It will require out-of-the-box thinking, but Turner and new Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer have never been afraid to innovate in the past.

Should the Vikings come up with offensive formations that get Peterson, Patterson and McKinnon all on the field simultaneously, opposing defenses will be tested by a unit that includes three of the NFL’s most explosive playmakers.

 

What to Expect for 2014

McKinnon’s not likely to be among the leaders in total statistics among rookies. Running backs such as Bishop Sankey of the Tennessee Titans and Terrance West of the Cleveland Browns, plus wide receivers like Sammy Watkins of the Buffalo Bills and Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are all likely to see greater percentages of their teams’ offensive touches in 2014 than McKinnon will in Minnesota.

Few rookies, however, will have as much ability as McKinnon to turn any play into a big play. This could lead McKinnon to regular appearances on national highlight shows, give Minnesota fans another offensive weapon to be excited about and require defenses to game-plan against him.

 

All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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