As Jerick McKinnon broke into the clear Sunday night, straining to stay beyond the grasp of two San Francisco 49ers defenders chasing him, one thought helped him beat back the fatigue grasping at his legs.
“Once I got some space,” he said, “I was like, ‘I’ve got to score. I’ve got to score. If I get caught, they’re going to take my nickname away.”
There’s some truth in every joke, and for the jovial “Jet,” the self-deprecation might not be that far off base. For as dynamic as he appeared to be when the Vikings selected him in the third round of the 2014 draft — he ranked among the top running backs at every speed and strength drill at the NFL combine that year — McKinnon has struggled to supply the kind of consistent punch that would make him an indispensable part of the offense.
In 42 games over the past three seasons, he has had only 11 touches from the line of scrimmage that gained 20 yards or more. Three of those came in a two-week stretch in December 2015, in which the Vikings started to deploy McKinnon as both a running back and slot receiver on their way to the NFC North title.
But he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry replacing the injured Adrian Peterson and playing behind a ramshackle offensive line a year ago, and when the Vikings said goodbye to Peterson this spring, they signed free agent Latavius Murray and used a second-round pick on Dalvin Cook to join McKinnon in the backfield.
As the 25-year-old heads into a contract year, though, he might get a chance to carve out a bigger niche on the Vikings’ roster as a kick returner. On his 108-yard kick return Sunday night, McKinnon took advantage of strong blocking — as he was quick to acknowledge after the game — but also showcased the breakaway speed that helped draw the Vikings to McKinnon in the first place.
Coach Mike Zimmer said earlier this month the team has punt returner Marcus Sherels as an option to return kicks, too, and reminded reporters the Vikings’ kick returner could ultimately come from outside the team in a waiver-wire pickup after final roster cuts. But a game after rookie Rodney Adams fumbled a kickoff in Seattle, McKinnon did as much as he could to stake himself to the return job.
“I see it as a way to help the team win,” McKinnon said. “[Special teams coordinator Mike] Priefer always emphasizes momentum change. I think they were up on us pretty good at the time. We were able to swing momentum, get back and ultimately come out with the win.”
Momentum change could be important for McKinnon on a personal level, too. He figures to have a role in a Vikings backfield that will be more egalitarian than a Peterson-led group would have been, but he’s listed behind both Cook and Murray on the depth chart. His career-high in carries came last season, when he logged 159 attempts, but he might not get that many in his final year before he hits the open market.
If he’s able to solidify a role as a return man on a team that still prizes an aggressive approach on kickoff returns, and supplement it with a few big plays from the line of scrimmage, he might be able to make a stronger case for a new deal after the season.
Whether he’s here beyond this year, McKinnon’s return Sunday night showed he can provide a jolt for the 2017 Vikings as they try to replace the impact two-time All-Pro return man Cordarrelle Patterson had on the game.
After passing up on several opportunities to bring deep kicks out of the end zone, McKinnon had made up his mind he would be aggressive in the third quarter.
The Vikings often gave Patterson the green light to run back deep kicks, believing the potential for a game-breaking play was worth it even as the NFL incentivized touchbacks by moving the ball out to the 25-yard line.
“It just shows you that coaches believe in you,” McKinnon said. “They trust you’re going to make a good decision with the ball in your hands. When I’m back there, I trust in all the other guys on the unit, as well. I think it’s about whoever starts, or if we have a rotation, that everybody’s confident in that person.’
Indeed, McKinnon’s touchdown Sunday night was a reminder of why the Vikings had the confidence to spend a third-round pick on a converted triple-option quarterback in 2014. His latest role, in a career that’s already been full of different ones, could turn out to be the right fit.
“Me and Latavius was running down with him,” Cook said.
“We was hyped. So to see him do that, it ignite the running back room. He make a play, we all make a play in the running back room. That’s how we take the situation: One scores, we all score.”