Star fantasy running backs can come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly, running backs masquerading as The Incredible Hulk are the ones we truly care about for fantasy. However slender, quicker receiving backs get the job done as well. Typically, running backs drafted early are the ones who pop, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Look at Elijah Mitchell last season and James Robinson the year prior. It’s fun to hypothesize who the next late-round breakout running back candidate is going to be. One running back who could be this year’s Mitchell-level late-round breakout is a blast from the past: Kansas City Chiefs veteran running back Jerick McKinnon.
The Tease of McKinnon
McKinnon has long been a fantasy football tease. He, in a sense, is Tony Pollard. Both McKinnon and Pollard are hyper-athletic, versatile, and explosive running backs who could never knock the opportunity barrier down and cement themselves as primary running backs. Pollard’s rushing efficiency (5.1 career yards per carry) far out laps McKinnon’s (4.1), but both have been underutilized similarly. McKinnon has never exceeded 159 carries in a season and has registered more than 50 targets in a season twice. Pollard has yet to exceed 130 carries or 50 targets in a season.
When McKinnon gets his chances, he makes the most of it. Shocking how giving a versatile, athletic specimen of a running back chances could lead to success. Dating back to McKinnon’s rookie season in 2014, he averaged 15.36 points per game in PPR formats in games where’s registered at least 15 touches. While yes, many of these performances were many seasons and a torn ACL ago, six of his 25 such games have occurred within the last two years.
McKinnon figured to be the next running back propelled by Kyle Shanahan after signing a big contract in 2018, but a torn ACL in training camp derailed those hopes. Lingering knee issues claimed McKinnon’s 2019 season. It wasn’t until 2020 when McKinnon returned to the field. Once he returned, McKinnon has mostly been deployed as a third-down, change-of-pace depth back. He’s registered 93 carries in that span and averaged just over four yards a rush.
McKinnon excelled as a receiver out of the backfield throughout those last two years. His 7.82 yards per reception the last two seasons are on par with many of the NFL’s best running backs and exceeds his career 7.1 mark. Granted, it is a small sample spread across two different teams, but still noteworthy. After injuries sapped his best chance at being a lead back in San Francisco, the 49ers did not retain him after 2020. The Kansas City Chiefs took a dart throw on him in 2021. Similar to his last and only season in the Bay, McKinnon played sparingly, touching the ball 25 times in 13 regular-season games. It looked like the writing was on the wall.
The Playoff Trip to the Time Machine
Chiefs third year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire suffered an injury in Kansas City’s Week 16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Edwards-Helaire injured earlier in the season, the reliable Darrel Williams filled his spot. When Edwards-Helaire missed Weeks 6-10, McKinnon registered six carries and 14 targets. Williams, meanwhile, racked up 69 carries and 67 targets in that span, averaging 17.8 PPR points per game. Williams again balled in Week 17 in Edwards-Helaire’s first game out from his second injury, but in Kansas City’s playoff run, Andy Reid put the ball in McKinnon’s hands.
McKinnon would not disappoint. In his first playoff start against the Pittsburgh Steelers, McKinnon rattled off 142 yards from scrimmage. The next game against the Buffalo Bills didn’t prove as fruitful, but McKinnon produced 54 yards on the ground. Kansas City’s AFC Championship Game loss saw McKinnon rush for 65 yards on 12 carries and add another 30 receiving yards. McKinnon totaled 48 touches in Kansas City’s three playoff games; Edwards-Helaire and Williams combined for 16.
This leads us to McKinnon’s spot in 2022. McKinnon may not enter the season as the starter ahead of Edwards-Helaire on the depth chart, but he showed he’s capable of producing when given the chance. Most importantly, he earned Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes‘ trust as both a pass catcher and in pass protection.
Top 3 RBs from the 2021 season with the highest passer rating when targeted | min 30 targets via @PFF
1. Aaron Jones – 123.0
2. Cordarrelle Patterson – 122.8
3. Jerick McKinnon – 121.1 pic.twitter.com/7ooz8ETeE6
— Chiefs Kingdom (@ChiefsFan4Lyfe) June 13, 2022
Free-agent signee Ronald Jones II is not a notable receiving threat even when getting fed targets from the most notorious check-down artist of all time- Tom Brady. Jones does have a greater yard per reception average (7.5) than McKinnon for their careers, but Jones has one season with a yards per reception average higher than his career average. In four seasons, Jones has 104 targets: 26 on average. This is not where Jones’ bread is buttered. He could secure a role as a between-the-20s rusher for the Chiefs this year, but that isn’t what gets fantasy gamers excited.
McKinnon vs Edwards-Helaire
McKinnon’s primary competition for receiving work is the incumbent in the Chiefs’ running back room: Edwards-Helaire. Edwards-Helaire also hasn’t held up in the NFL quite as he did in his final season at LSU in 2019 which precipitated the Chiefs to spend their first-round pick. He’s missed nine games in two seasons. He was solid but nothing special as a rookie, averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 8.3 yards per reception en route to an RB22 finish in PPR formats and the RB15 on a per-game basis. He was arguably Kansas City’s third-best running back in 2021.
Darrel Williams, now in Arizona, routinely would replace Edwards-Helaire on third down and was a much more productive receiver out of the backfield. Williams averaged 9.6 yards per reception and 1.61 yards per route run last year. He finished No. 4 and No. 12 in those categories among running backs. Edwards-Helaire averaged 6.8 yards per reception and 0.99 yards per route run. Yes, injuries played their part, but that’s a ghastly contrast.
Even when Edwards-Helaire returned from his injuries, he wasn’t Kansas City’s primary running back in the playoffs. That was McKinnon. McKinnon exceeded 50 yards in two playoff games as a receiver twice and had a game with at least 50 rushing and 50 receiving yards. Edwards-Helaire has only two games with at least 50 receiving yards and one game with at least 50 rushing and 50 receiving yards in the same game for his entire 27-game NFL career.
How Does This Affect McKinnon?
This is hardly a goliath for McKinnon to overtake. Edwards-Helaire will enter training camp and the season as the primary back for the Chiefs, but he has been both injured and usurped before. McKinnon projects to be the next best receiver out of the backfield, which is an important role in Kansas City’s offense. Since Mahomes has become Kansas City’s starting quarterback in 2018, here are the number of targets he has dispersed to his backfield mates in the regular season: 97-110-111-112. 260 non-running back targets from a year ago have walked out of the door along with an additional 57 from the running back room. There are targets to be had in Kansas City and a world where McKinnon eats up a number of those even if Edwards-Helaire is healthy.
McKinnon played in three more games than Edwards-Helaire last year but had nowhere near the role Edwards-Helaire did. Edwards-Helaire finished the 2021 regular season with 138 touches to McKinnon’s 25. Despite that gulf in usage, Edwards-Helaire finished with only three more targets (23) than McKinnon (20). It won’t be a shock when McKinnon finds himself in the third-down role in this offense this season.
It’s hard for older running backs to become fantasy stars. But it isn’t impossible. McKinnon’s age doesn’t do him favors as he crosses into the 30-year-old threshold. His workload over his career has not been far too extensive, however. Perhaps the 755 career touches are what allowed McKinnon to still have juice in Kansas City’s playoff run as a 29-year-old. McKinnon may be best as a backup or rotation back. If Kansas City had faith in Edwards-Helaire and Jones II’s ability to carry the load this season, they wouldn’t have needed to bring McKinnon in.
He’ll likely begin the season behind those three and as a change-of-pace back. But it isn’t hard to see McKinnon carving himself a role on one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL and see that role continue to expand. Edwards-Helaire has ceded work to veterans before. Jones II has never put it all together. McKinnon has done it in this backfield and can do it again this season.