Coach Kyle Shanahan’s plan for the 49ers to unleash a nearly impossible-to-defend attack on third downs never got off the ground.
That’s because the "Jet" was grounded the past two seasons.
But running back Jerick McKinnon appears to be making good progress as he continues to rehab in his comeback attempt after missing two years of football due to a knee injury.
General manager John Lynch, speaking this week on the 49ers Insider Podcast, recalled the optimism of a year ago when McKinnon was on schedule for a full recovery for the 2019 season after sitting out all of 2018 with torn ACL.
Although the signs are encouraging for McKinnon making a strong recovery, Lynch said he is managing his expectations.
“I think there’s always that critical last juncture of a rehab where you go from running straight ahead and even trying to simulate some of the cutting that goes on at that position, specifically,” Lynch said.
“Then, you go play football and it becomes much more reactive. And that’s where he struggled. He’s continued to put in work. There are some positive signs that we’re on a better track.”
McKinnon, who was scheduled to make $6.8 million in salary and bonuses in 2020, agreed to a pay reduction to a $910,000 base salary.
He signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the 49ers on the first day of free agency in 2018.
McKinnon, whose nickname is "Jet," has yet to play in a regular-season game for the 49ers.
He was again placed on season-ending injured reserve last summer after the ACL graft did not fill back in. McKinnon said a follow-up surgery was required to pack the ACL graft with bone marrow from his hip.
The 49ers had the NFL’s No. 2-ranked running game last season, but they lacked a third-down back who was a polished route runner.
Shanahan hand-picked McKinnon for his offense as a free agent in 2018 due to his ability to run choice routes. Ideally, the 49ers could pick their best matchups in the passing game due to the versatility of McKinnon, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle, in addition to the team’s receivers.
In his final season with the Minnesota Vikings, McKinnon caught 51 passes for 421 yards.
“We’re going to let that play out,” Lynch said. “We’re pulling for Jerick and it would be huge for us because we had a clear vision of what he could bring to us.
“We thought he’d be excellent in terms of (being a receiver out of the backfield) -- really, a tough guy to match up with in space. And our (coaches) are really good about putting our guys in space. So that would be tremendous for us.”