Running back Jerick McKinnon has played only two games in two-plus seasons with the 49ers, but his anticipated role during that time has evolved innumerable times.
When he signed with the 49ers on the first day of free agency in 2018, he was viewed as the new focal point of the offense.
Leading up to training camp of 2019, he was a chess piece for Kyle Shanahan’s strategic maneuverings.
But after knee issues sidelined him for those two years, he returned this season on a greatly reduced contract as merely a luxury –- a highly-skilled route-runner who could give Jimmy Garoppolo another option on third downs.
Now, he is a necessity.
The 49ers figure to take the field Sunday without running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman against the New York Giants. Both sustained knee injuries on Sunday against the New York Jets on the same FieldTurf at MetLife Stadium on which the 49ers will play in Week 3.
Mostert is “not likely” to play, Shanahan said, and Coleman could be out multiple weeks.
The 49ers were ravaged by injuries in the game against the Jets, especially on the defensive line. Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas are out for the season after sustaining torn ACLs. And nose tackle D.J. Jones has an ankle sprain that places his availability in question.
The injuries to Mostert and Coleman were less jarring because nobody saw when they occurred. And, at least for the short term, the 49ers are well-positioned to withstand a couple of absences in the backfield.
The 49ers kept four halfbacks on their 53-man roster for situations such as this.
Jeff Wilson is a hard-charging runner who can catch passes out of the backfield. In his time with the team, he has done everything asked of him. He likely will take on the primary role on base downs.
Wilson has appeared in 18 games with the 49ers since his promotion from the practice squad toward the end of the 2018 season. He has gained 374 yards and four touchdowns on 95 rushing attempts (3.9 average). He also has 15 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.
Wilson and McKinnon provide the 49ers with a versatile combination of power, speed, route-running and hands out of the backfield.
It seems Nick Mullens will make his first start at quarterback since 2018, though Shanahan would not rule out the possibility Garoppolo can play despite sustaining a high ankle sprain against the Jets.
The combination of Wilson and McKinnon rotating into the lineup should provide Shanahan and Mullens with enough options to attack the New York Giants’ defense.
McKinnon has been a bright spot for the 49ers through the first two games. He caught a touchdown pass in the opener, then had 77 yards and a touchdown on three rushing attempts in the 31-13 win over the Jets.
He supplied one of the offensive highlights when he tore off a 55-yard run on a third-and-31 play in the second half.
The 49ers’ options at running back do not end there, either.
The 49ers could promote undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty of Baylor from the practice squad.
Hasty had an eye-opening training camp. The club was concerned another team would claim Hasty when it came time for the roster cuts to the 53-man regular-season limit.
But the lack of preseason games gave the 49ers little to worry about because the other teams around the league had to stick with their pre-draft evaluations on Hasty because there was no fresh film of him from the summer.
Hasty is out of the McKinnon mold. At 5-foot-8, 205 pounds, Hasty has the ability to get outside in the 49ers’ zone running scheme while also being a difficult cover for any linebacker out of the backfield. Hasty averaged 5.2 yards per carry and caught 79 passes for 485 yards during his four-year college career.
The 49ers were built for depth at running back, though they are forced to dip into their stockpile far sooner than they had hoped.