Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”

Nick Mullens expects to get better ahead of 49ers offseason program


Nick Mullens expects to get better ahead of 49ers offseason program

Nick Mullens started the season on the 49ers’ practice squad and he ended up as the starter for the final eight games.

His average of 284.6 yards passing per game is the fourth-most since at least 1970 for a player in his first eight games, ranking behind only Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck, and Cam Newton.

“It was a fun eight-game stretch," Mullens said on The 49ers Insider Podcast.  “Coach (Kyle) Shanahan let me throw it around a pretty good bit, which is always fun for me playing the position.”

Mullens originally signed with the 49ers after going undrafted in 2017 from Southern Mississippi. After one full season on the team’s practice squad, Mullens had a good grasp of the offense when he got his chance to replace C.J. Beathard for a Week 9 game against the Raiders.

Mullens said he fit in well with Shanahan’s offense because the offense is well-balanced and all the pieces fit well together to create conflicts for defenses.

“And when I say balanced, I’m not just talking about run and pass,” Mullens said. “I’m talking about the run game looks exactly like the play-action, which sets up the keeper game. And then you mix in your quick game and your dropbacks. It five different phases that all work really well together, and it keeps defenses on their toes. They never know what they’re going to get. It really gives the offense a great chance at success.

“Looking at our yards after the catch, (those) are small-scheme plays that enable George (Kittle) and the playmakers on offense to catch it and run. That’s scheme.”

Kittle set the record for most receiving yards (1,377) from a tight end in NFL history. He had 873 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus, which is the most for any player at any position since PFF began keeping statistics in 2006.

[RELATED: Kittle, Richie James voted to writers' All-NFC Team]

But Mullens heads into the offseason without a backup job locked up. He will compete with Beathard for the role behind starter Jimmy Garoppolo. In the meantime, Mullens is focused on getting better. He will spend time in the offseason working with former Ole Miss quarterback David Morris of QB Country before reporting back to Santa Clara for the beginning of the 49ers' offseason program.

“Like coach Shanahan said in the team meeting, ‘Always keep your mind on getting better.' Even if you’re relaxing and taking time off and getting away, you’re still thinking about getting better,” Mullens said.

“How can I get better? Whether it’s reading books or studying coverages or thinking about different plays through the year. And when your time comes to start doing field work, agility and conditioning and all that, and getting yourself ready for OTAs and stuff like that. You’re always thinking about getting better. I’m really excited about that mindset going into the offseason.”

49ers' George Kittle, Richie James voted to writers' All-NFC Team


49ers' George Kittle, Richie James voted to writers' All-NFC Team

Two 49ers were named Tuesday to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-NFC Team.

One -- tight end George Kittle -- was no surprise.

The other was rookie kick returner Richie James, who accounted for the only kickoff return for a touchdown from any player in the NFC this season. James was a seventh-round draft pick from Middle Tennessee.

He also finished third in kick-return yards among NFC players with 580. Marvin Hall (Atlanta) led the conference with 616 yards, and Corey Coleman (New York Giants) had 598 yards.

James’ 25.2 average on 23 returns ranked behind Coleman’s 26.0 average and ahead of Hall’s 23.7 mark.

But James was one of just five players in the NFL to have a kick return for a touchdown this season. His 97-yard return was a key play in the 49ers’ 26-23 upset of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 15.

Fellow 49ers rookie D.J. Reed also had some success as a kick returner. He averaged 30.2 yards on 11 kickoff returns with a long of 90 yards.

Andre Roberts of the New York Jets was the All-NFL kick returner. He led the league with 1,174 yards on kick returns with a 29.4 average and one touchdown.

Kittle, who was named a second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press earlier this month, had 1,377 receiving yards this season -- the most from a tight end in NFL history. Kittle had 88 receptions and five touchdowns.

[RELATED: 49ers staff will coach these QBs for Senior Bowl]

Travis Kelce was chosen to the All-NFL Team ahead of Kittle. Kelce helped the Kansas City Chiefs earn home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs with a 12-4 record. He caught 103 passes for 1,336 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The PFWA also announced its All-Rookie Team, and 49ers offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey was selected for one of the tackle spots, along with Indianapolis' Braden Smith.