The morning after each Vikings game, beat writer Ben Goessling dives in for a deeper look at a key aspect of how the Vikings played, and what it means for the team going forward:
LONDON — Since the Vikings spent the final pick of the Percy Harvin trade on him in 2014 to be a complement to Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon has seemed to float in the team’s offense in search of the right fit.
He was second on the team in rushing in 2014, as part of a tandem that helped the Vikings weather Peterson’s suspension that year, but as Peterson returned to win the rushing title in 2015, McKinnon saw his opportunities dry up until the end of the year, when the team carved out a role as a runner and receiver that again dissipated early in 2016.
When Pat Shurmur replaced Norv Turner as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator about a year ago, though, things started to change for McKinnon. He caught 35 passes in the final nine games of that season, as the Vikings again sought to get him the ball out of the backfield as a way to circumvent their leaky offensive line.
This year, an athletic line in front of the Vikings’ running backs has jolted the team’s short passing game. McKinnon is third on the team through eight games with 28 catches. He was three yards off a career-high for receiving yards against the Browns on Sunday. And it’s worth wondering if the free agent-to-be might have a promising future in Minnesota.
That seemed farfetched last spring, when the Vikings signed Latavius Murray and used a second-round pick on Dalvin Cook as part of their plan to move on from Peterson. The Vikings talked about a three-man rotation in the backfield, and McKinnon got opportunities in training camp while Murray recovered from ankle surgery. But as the season started and the Vikings made Cook their new feature back, McKinnon’s opportunities were sparse.
It’s all changed since Cook’s torn ACL in Week 4, and in the Vikings’ past four games, McKinnon has posted 424 combined rushing and receiving yards, including another 112 on Sunday to set a new career high for rushing and receiving yards in a four-game span. He’s got 163 receiving yards in that time, and he’s made himself into one of the more productive pass-catching backs in the NFL.
According to Pro Football Focus, McKinnon is eighth in the league this season with an average of 1.68 receiving yards per pass route. That puts him just in front of backs like Mark Ingram and Theo Riddick, and just behind players like Todd Gurley and Andre Ellington.
“It’s basically like a run game; it’s a short pass and then a run,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “I think that Jerick did a great job out of the backfield.”
Last year, the Vikings were forced to call short passes because they weren’t able to run the ball, and predictability hampered their offense. This season, they’ve honed their screen game as a counterpunch to aggressive pass-rushing teams, and while the Browns were able to knock down a number of short passes early on Sunday, Keenum eventually found McKinnon as a receiver.
“It was just them getting their hands up. We knew that coming into the game and, I mean, you got to take your hat off to them,” McKinnon said. “It’s all about when, things don’t go your way, you got to bounce back and that’s what we did in the second half.”
That’s also what McKinnon has done this season, and the possibility of a future for him in Minnesota suddenly seems more viable than it did at the beginning of the season. He’ll be a free agent after the year, but will become one at a time where prices are modest for running backs. The Vikings can also release Murray without penalty after the season; he has $1.1 million of his $5.15 million 2018 base salary currently guaranteed for injury only, and the full amount doesn’t become guaranteed until the third day of the league year. Given Cook’s recovery from knee surgery, and the price tag to bring Murray back, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings work out a reasonable deal to keep McKinnon in the fold, now that he’s found a home in Shurmur’s offense.
His financial future will be determined in time. On Sunday, though, as he sat down in the end zone, pretending to drive a Lamborghini that had been “shipped back from the States,” it seemed as though McKinnon had hit full speed in the Vikings’ offense.