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One Athletic Superfreak Soon to Emerge from the Shadows

If I had to make a list of the running backs in the mix to finish as the overall RB1 in 2017, it would include Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Lamar Miller, Devonta Freeman, and Ezekiel Elliott. That’s about it, except for one name. It would also include Jerick McKinnon.

But before we get into that …

What about Adrian Peterson?

Purple Jesus will go down as one of the greatest backs in NFL history. Any anti-Peterson argument that doesn’t begin with that premise should naturally draw extreme skepticism. Peterson led the NFL in rushing attempts last season and is locked into a heavy workload for this season.

At the same time, the argument I outlined in 2013 against his fantasy value also has reality repercussions. In a league where receiving yards are roughly twice as valuable as rushing yards, Peterson’s lack of receiving value is a liability.

Moreover, Peterson is now into his 30s. I don’t dispute the notion that Peterson is a rare athlete, and I like his chances of fighting off the age cliff longer than most backs.1 It’s still the case that RB injury is related to RB touches, and Peterson’s history of injury is divorced from his history of recovery from injury. His contract is also structured in such a way that the Vikings can run him into the ground this season and cut him with no dead money in the 2017 offseason. His current cap hit for 2017 is $18 million, more than double the next highest Viking and out of step with the contemporary NFL landscape at the position.

To be clear, I see Peterson’s future through rose-colored glasses because his talent is beyond dispute. But even treating him as something different than the normal elite RB – say Marshawn Lynch or Frank Gore – the combination of age, workload, and contract encourages me to look at the backup in Minnesota as a position of some importance.

The Inevitable Emergence of Jerick McKinnon

At the NFL combine McKinnon ran a 4.41 forty, jumped 40.5 inches, and turned in a 6.83 three-cone. That gives him a SPARQ above the 99.5 percentile according to Player Profiler. While McKinnon is a little light at 209 pounds to be a Profile 1 back, his measurables position him to be a hyper-Profile 2 back, essentially a heavier version of Jamaal Charles.

The obsession with measurables at the RB position makes sense in the light of history. RB is a position where value is overwhelmingly dependent on opportunity and athleticism.2

Opportunity 

McKinnon didn’t even look like a good Peterson handcuff in 2015 as he was out-snapped by Matt Asiata through the first half of the year. The situation did improve late.

MIN RB Snaps

This isn’t quite the uptick in snaps that screams “buy,” but you can see that when Peterson missed time in Week 13, McKinnon was the beneficiary. He also started to see more passing down work over the second half of the season.

Vikings Snap Report – Week 9 to Week 17

NAME GMS SNAPS SPG SNP.PCT OPPS OPP.RATE RUYDS RECYDS RUYPS RECYPS
Adrian Peterson 9 360 40 0.63 206 0.57 852 115 2.37 0.32
Jerick McKinnon 9 104 11.56 0.18 52 0.5 165 164 1.59 1.58
Matt Asiata 8 101 12.62 0.19 29 0.29 55 80 0.54 0.79

The column to focus on is RECYPS. McKinnon is positioned to be the receiving back going forward.

Efficiency/Explosion

Despite entering the NFL as a raw QB-transition player, McKinnon has averaged 4.9 yards per carry over his first 165 attempts. Kevin Cole has found 40 time to be the most predictive metric for RBs, and this fits with the idea that YPC is essentially a big play stat.3 Even though McKinnon has only scored two rushing TDs, his efficiency over that time period has rivaled Peterson’s.

Player Attempts msATT Expected Points FPOE ruFPOEPA
Adrian Peterson 348 0.69 161.42 60.58 0.17
Jerick McKinnon 165 0.22 64.58 28.32 0.17
Matt Asiata 193 0.232 104.58 17.62 0.09

Expectations in check for 2016, but standalone value exists

In deciding how much to pay for McKinnon in dynasty or where to target him in MFL10s, it’s important to keep expectations in check. Peterson will remain the bell cow.

According to Mike Zimmer, Peterson’s role will be essentially unchanged. McKinnon will continue to function as a space player. From the Minnesota Star-Tribune:

“He loves to ball and he’s a great kid, always has a smile on his face,” Zimmer said. “I do think we can find a lot more things for him to do and can continue to use his athletic ability and get him in some open spaces that allow him to continue to showcase his ability.”

When you consider the late season trends, team tactics, and physical profiles, it’s not a stretch to see McKinnon emerging as the Vikings’ Charles Sims to Peterson in the Doug Martin role. We know from the excellent FF Accounting Series that Norv Turner-coordinated teams have a weighted 23 percent RB target share. It crested at 28 percent in 2011 and 2012 before he found himself at the helm of teams that didn’t fit his tendencies. (Chris Ogbonnaya caught 48 passes for him in 2013.) That all should change in 2016 as the late season usage and offseason rhetoric suggest the Vikings realize what they have in McKinnon.

From a pure contingency-based perspective, it’s also helpful that in a scenario where Peterson is injured, McKinnon has more upside opportunity than Peterson. McKinnon doesn’t have to be as good to score similarly. (In 2015 Devonta Freeman averaged only 0.5 points per game less than Peterson in his historic 2012 season.) This explains why Ben Gretch located McKinnon as one of his candidates to back into a Freeman-type season.

McKinnon isn’t just a player I’m writing about during the summer doldrums. I traded for McKinnon during the RDL rookie draft and selected him in the 2016 MFL10 of Death. I recommend targeting him in your own leagues before it’s too late.

  1. He’s already fought it off longer than most.  (back)
  2. Speaking in terms of probabilities. You can obviously find exceptions.  (back)
  3. YPC may be noisy, but it certainly plays into coaching narratives. Therefore it makes sense to have the splash-play ability that will pull up your YPC.  (back)

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